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Working Together on Water

October 18, 1987

Of California's many bitter and protracted water battles, the classic of them all enters a critical new phase on Monday. Still another chapter is being written in the eight-decade-long saga of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Owens Valley. Goliath and David are at it again, but at the bargaining table and not with rifles or dynamite. The City of Los Angeles (Pop. 3 million) and the County of Inyo (Pop. 18,000) begin six months of negotiations toward a long-term agreement over Los Angeles' pumping of well water from the Owens Valley and taking it south.

The talks begin at a time of great uncertainty over water development in California, an era of limits--of even shrinking limits. For every bucket of water Los Angeles might have to give up from the Owens Valley, Los Angeles will have to get a bucketful from someplace else. But where?

In outlining Los Angeles' goals, Duane Georgeson, chief of the DWP's water division, notes that the city has two aqueducts running more than 200 miles down from the Owens Valley, and he wants to keep them full. That is his job. Up in Bishop, Inyo County water chief Gregory L. James lists a variety of concerns of Owens Valley residents that may become negotiating demands: the effect of Los Angeles' pumping on the water table and the environment; more water for Owens Valley gardens and landscaping; additional water for fishing and recreation, and some sort of economic assistance for the depressed valley. After a series of public hearings, James says that many valley residents remain antagonistic and suspicious toward the DWP.

Los Angeles has been under court order since 1973 to justify its Owens Valley pumping in an environmental-impact report. Two city EIRs have been rejected as inadequate, and, pending an acceptable document, the court restricted DWP groundwater pumping from the valley to 108,000 acre-feet a year--less than a third of what the city asked. Weary of complex and costly court fights, Los Angeles and Inyo finally negotiated a five-year agreement extending to the end of February, 1989. The level of pumping is determined cooperatively each year within limits of 106,000 and 210,000 acre-feet. The city has undertaken a variety of projects designed to mitigate damages caused by the pumping. Detailed studies are being made by the U.S. Geological Survey to assess the status of the Owens Valley aquifer and the environmental degradation caused by the lowering of the water table.

The new negotiations are starting now because the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento directed the city to submit an acceptable EIR by Feb. 28, 1989. If the city and Inyo County agree on a long-range pumping program in the coming months, they then will conduct the environmental study jointly. If there is no agreement, the city could be subjected again to the flat 108,000-acre-foot limit.

The existing agreement does not please everyone, but it has seemed to work well--certainly better than inflexible limits set by court edict. There is no question that the best way to manage the Owens Valley groundwater supply in the future is through cooperation rather than legal confrontation. This means that the two sides need to expend every effort to reach a long-term agreement and then jointly draft an environmental-impact report that is acceptable to the court and provides for the legitimate needs of the valley.

Both sides have strong bargaining points. Inyo has a court ruling on its side, and the legend of the little fellow being exploited by the megalopolis to the south. Los Angeles has an empire of 300,000 acres of Owens Valley land and the water rights. While water rights are not as inviolate as in the old days, no judge is likely to allow the drastic interruption of a water supply that is vital to the well-being of 3 million people just to grow alfalfa or irrigate streamside greenery.

By working together, Los Angeles and Inyo can stretch each bucketful of water to do the maximum of work. In the process they can continue the long, slow process of overcoming three-quarters of a century of bitterness and distrust.

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