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Little Towns That the Boom Just Bypassed : Water: They are strung out along the Owens Valley but are virtual colonies of L.A.'s DWP. The utility says growth in the area is bad news and it doesn't want anybody living on the 245,00 acres.

October 01, 1990|KEVIN RODERICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BISHOP, Calif. — German and French tourists in search of the American West stop here beside the Sierra Nevada in the evening to grab supper, watch the sun fade behind the jagged crags and bed down in the motels that line U.S. 395.

At sunup, they hit the road again, leaving behind what may be the most unusual resort area in California.

Mountain towns with Bishop's attributes--a dozen lakes and the Mammoth Mountain ski area nearby, mild winters, a modern hospital--swelled with city refugees in the 1980s, a decade when California added 6 million people. But the Bishop area missed the boom because of a force more powerful than demographics.

Bishop and the smaller towns that dot the Owens Valley--Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine and Laws--are virtual colonies of a real estate empire based 250 miles south. They are encircled by miles of open high desert, plenty of room to grow. But the overlord of all the land--Los Angeles and its Department of Water and Power--says growth here is bad news.

Los Angeles has no plans itself for the land, upwards of 245,000 acres up and down the Owens Valley. It just doesn't want anyone to live on it.

People use water, and Los Angeles draws more than half of its water supply from the Owens River and from hundreds of wells in the valley. People also vote and complain, and the DWP already has enough political trouble in the colonies.

Demands are increasing to force Los Angeles to defend its history here in court, and the entire Inyo County Board of Supervisors faces ouster this year for being perceived as too cozy with the DWP. Los Angeles is blamed for killing trees and brush, and for strangling the towns by its ban on growth.

"This is by far the worst I've seen--people are really irate," said John K. Smith, the retired chief administrator of Inyo County.

The influence of Los Angeles is a fact of life in the lightly populated wedge of California that lies east of the Sierra Nevada. The DWP land empire, amassed since the 1900s, includes not only open range, but a large chunk of Owens Valley homes and businesses. Los Angeles is one of the area's biggest employers and also the source of livelihood for cattle ranchers, who lease DWP land for pasture.

Smith, himself a cattleman, has lived beside U.S. 395 on the north side of Independence since 1948 and says that, until recent years, cattails and willows grew and frogs croaked in the wetlands near his property.

The wetlands are now dry, the sagebrush dead, the soil a dark powder that blows in the afternoon winds that whip between the valley's 14,000-foot-elevation walls, the Sierra Nevada and the White-Inyo Mountains. Dust also blows fine alkali silt off the bed of Owens Lake, dried up by the DWP in the 1940s. And the Owens River is just a trickling stream in places.

"This valley is substantially different than it was when I came here," Smith recalled recently. "That river was navigable (for 50 miles) from the lake all the way up to Bishop and they just killed it."

For the most part, say DWP engineers, the newly brown brush visible across the valley is due to California's four-year drought. Only about 1,000 acres have been damaged by DWP pumps, according to an environmental impact report released Friday. But disbelieving old-timers say carnage from pumps is far more widespread.

"People here are so sad and outraged and defeated," said Dorcas Birchim, an artist whose grandchildren are the sixth generation of her family to grow up in the Owens Valley. "We're a conquered people."

Due in large part to hard feelings about the DWP, one Inyo County supervisor lost his reelection bid in June and another was forced into a Nov. 6 runoff. The rest of the Board of Supervisors faces a November recall election, the first in Inyo County history.

Their main offense, according to critics, was to quietly negotiate a tentative deal with the DWP to settle an 18-year-old legal fight between Inyo County and Los Angeles. Inyo officials and the DWP say the deal would protect the Owens Valley by halting the ground water pumps if a panel of experts believe that vegetation is being harmed. As a bonus, the agreement would also restore water to the lower Owens River, once a prized fishing area, and Los Angeles would pay Inyo County $2 million a year.

Just as important, the deal's architects say, it would avoid a courtroom battle that could end with Los Angeles losing its historic water rights in Owens Valley--or possibly with Inyo County losing any right to limit DWP's water exports--or with a legal stalemate much like the one that exists today.

Critics say the new water agreement appears to do little to safeguard vegetation or protect private wells in the valley, which have dropped in recent years. A courtroom clash is inevitable if the deal isn't changed, they say.

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