Justice Flows Into a Parched California Valley Los
Angeles Begins to Return Water, Which It Diverted
Nearly a Century Ago
By John Pomfret Washington Post Staff Writer
December 20, 2006
INDEPENDENCE, Calif. -- Mike Prather whooped as he
ambled through the tumbleweed and salt grass for a
look. There it was, bubbling and oozing like lava,
as it inched down the valley floor.
The object of his search was nothing more or less
than water. Water, which has not flowed in the
Owens River for 93 years, is now, almost
miraculously, there again.
||Environmental Mike Prather stands in the
Owens River, which contains water for the
first time since 1913, when Los Angeles
diverted the water into its aqueduct to
serve its growing population. (By John
Pomfret -- The Washington Post)
"This is what I expected," Prather, a
60-year-old environmentalist, said as he and his
26-year-old daughter, a graduate student in
wildlife management, watched the water seeping
into the sand. "It's not a tsunami; it's more like
the tide coming in. I am going to remember this
moment for the rest of my life."
Water was returned to the Owens River on Dec. 6,
when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and
Inyo County Supervisor Susan Cash symbolically
concluded the most celebrated water war in
Almost a century after Los Angeles diverted the
Owens River into the city's aqueduct, Villaraigosa
and Cash opened a gate and allowed some of that
water to return to the river, starting a
reclamation effort (62 riparian miles, 30 air
miles) rivaled only by the Kissimmee River
Restoration Project in the Florida Everglades.
Traveling less than one mile a day, the flow by a
recent Friday had reached a spot on the old
riverbed just a few miles north of Independence,
where Prather found it.
"By restoring the lower Owens River, the city of
Los Angeles will do more than right an historic
wrong," Villaraigosa said at a ceremony marking
the beginning of the project. "In a deeper sense,
we will affirm a literal truth: that when it comes
to protecting our environment, it is time for all
of us to change course."
The story of the Owens River Valley and Los
Angeles is one of the great narratives of the
West, chronicled in the 1974 Hollywood classic
"Chinatown." Starting in 1904, agents for the city
of Los Angeles masquerading as businessmen and
ranchers snapped up hundreds of thousands of acres
in the valley, 230 miles north of the city.
Los Angeles built an aqueduct and in 1913 diverted
the Owens River, which is fed by the snowpack on
the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west, to slake
its growing thirst. Another boom in the 1960s
prompted the city to pump out the valley's ground
water; a second aqueduct was completed in 1970. In
total, the aqueducts deliver more than 430 million
gallons a day to the city -- 70 percent of its
"Los Angeles employed chicanery, subterfuge,
spies, bribery, a campaign of divide-and-conquer
and a strategy of lies to get the water out,"
wrote the late Marc Reisner in his 1986 book,
"Cadillac Desert." "In the end, it milked the
Springs that annually transformed the valley into
a rich marshland for migrating birds, bobcats,
deer, elk and mountain lions dried up. Salt grass,
cottonwoods and willows died off; tumbleweed and
salt cedar moved in.
But the fact that the Los Angeles Department of
Water and Power (DWP) owned all the land meant
that the valley was saved from the city's sprawl.
No strip malls or gated communities mar the
landscape. To this day, Inyo County's 18,000
residents live on 1.7 percent of the land.
Starting in the 1970s, environmentalists and
residents of towns along the valley began suing
the DWP to force it to return water to the valley.
In 1997, the DWP reached an agreement with
plaintiffs in the case, including environmental
groups such as the Sierra Club and the Owens
Valley Committee, to re-create a healthy and
diverse habitat for fish, waterfowl and shorebirds
The city also agreed to place more than 300,000
acres of land it leases to ranchers under a strict
management program. And it agreed to mimic the
seasonal flooding of the grasslands, which would
again turn chunks of the valley floor into fecund
marshland, with scheduled releases of water from
But the DWP dithered. Finally, on July 26, 2005,
Inyo County Superior Court Judge Lee E. Cooper
vowed that "no excuses will be expected" and
ordered the second aqueduct shut down unless Los
Angeles began returning water to the valley.
Under current plans, the Owens River will run only
two feet deep. But that is enough water to allow
some habitats to regenerate, and the seasonal
water surges will push seeds even farther out
along the riverbanks.
Although the judge's decision forced Los Angeles
to act, other developments also made it possible.
The city's water conservation efforts have been
some of the most successful in the nation; over
the past 20 years, while Los Angeles has added
750,000 homes, its water consumption has remained
the same. Its water commission used to be
dominated by urban boosters, but with time,
environmentalists invaded its ranks.
Finally, the DWP itself has changed. "It used to
be all engineers," said Prather, "but now they
have biologists and wildlife managers."
The Owens River was not the only court defeat
handed to the DWP. In the 1990s, a court forced
Los Angeles to begin returning water to Mono Lake,
a once-pristine ecosystem north of Owens Valley.
Over the years, the lake's water table dropped 41
feet because of the city's unquenchable thirst.
But in recent years, the water level has risen 10
On a separate track, lawsuits also went after the
DWP because diverting the Owens River had dried up
Owens Lake, causing one of the most serious dust
pollution problems in the nation -- routinely 30
times higher than federal limits. The U.S.
Geological Survey called the lake "possibly the
greatest or most intense human-disturbed dust
source on Earth."
In a court deal in 1999, Los Angeles agreed to
mitigate the dust by flooding, spreading gravel or
seeding the lake bed. The DWP installed
"bubblers," industrial-size sprinklers, to dampen
it. So far, it has spent $400 million mitigating
the dust, and particulate matter has dropped by 60
percent. In all, more than 30 square miles of the
lake will be irrigated. And once water reaches the
lake by way of the reopened riverbed, it will be
used to further limit the lake bed's dust.
The wetting of Owens Lake has had another
fortuitous outcome. It has prompted tens of
thousands of birds to return to the region to
feast on freshwater shrimp and brine flies. The
Owens Valley Committee has documented 39 types of
birds, including 26 species of waterfowl, 16
species of birds of prey, 33 species of
shorebirds, five species of owls and a coyote
living on ducks on an island in the middle of the
lake, Prather said.
"Nature is pretty forgiving if you give it a
chance," he said as he watched a black-and-white
American avocet pick through the mud. "In five
years, this valley will be completely