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A Symbolic Thunderhead

August 13, 1989

Was there something prophetic, perhaps, about the giant thunderhead that camped over the Los Angeles Aqueduct late last week dumping rain that swept tons of mud, rock and other debris into the canal that is the water lifeline for 3 million Angelenos? As it happened, nature shut off the water just as the people of the Owens Valley were deciding whether to approve a second attempt to reach a long-term agreement with the City of Los Angeles over how much water the city Department of Water and Power could extract from the valley and send south.

And, as it happened, the tropical clouds wrought their wrath on the aqueduct just as negotiators in Sacramento reached tentative agreement on limiting the city' diversion of water from the Mono Lake basin just north of the Owens Valley, and providing a means for the city to buy replacement water elsewhere.

Just coincidence, of course. But, in fact, the storm may symbolize the unspoken undercurrent of hostility in the sparsely populated eastern Sierra region against the City of Los Angeles more emphatically than the public comments about the two related water issues. The opposition that erupted this spring against the first Los Angeles-Inyo County draft agreement on the city's pumping of water from the Owens Valley was surprisingly intense. That sent county and city negotiators back to the bargaining table. The new plan that emerged this past week was considerably improved from the standpoint of the 20,000 or so residents of sprawling Inyo County. Barring surprises, it will win approval from the Inyo County Board of Supervisors at a meeting Tuesday and then go before the Department of Water and Power's governing board and the Los Angeles City Council for ratification. The new plan gives Inyo County considerably more authority to curtail or halt the city's pumping from Owens Valley aquifers if there is direct evidence that the water table is being depleted to the extent that the valley's sparse vegetation is drying up. A primary goal of the pact is to prevent further damage than has been caused in 75 years of Los Angeles water withdrawals from the Owens Valley. That is a major victory when viewed in the perspective of recent years. And much will be heard from the city in the future about the sacrifices it must make in both water and money to satisfy Inyo County's demands.

In historic perspective, the city's concessions are minimal. Both the law and the public mood have shifted dramatically in recent years away from the concept of absolute water rights and toward environmental protection. In this sense, the tentative agreement to protect Mono Lake from past levels of water diversions by the city is a landmark. It establishes the concept that all the citizens of California should help pay to maintain a remarkable state environmental asset. This would be achieved by giving the city money to buy water from other sources to replace that portion of its Mono basin supply needed to maintain a healthy lake level.

It would be easy for the city to claim that the tail is wagging the dog--that it is unfair for the tiny citizenry of two far-away California counties to restrict the vital water supply of the emerging economic capital of the Pacific Rim for selfish and narrow environmental reasons. There is, in fact, considerable fear in the Owens Valley that some day some judge will decide just that, and the proposed 51-page agreement worked out over the past five years will be just meaningless words on paper. That should never have to happen, however, if California's ample water resources are managed with imagination and care.

The reality of today is that no single entity can expect to exercise absolute demand on another region's water. Both the Owens Valley and Mono Lake agreements will bring a measure of fairness and balance to a complex water equation. The City of Los Angeles should approve and honor them with pride, and not just the grudging acceptance that has been exhibited to date.

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