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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.


"We're beyond being a desert--we're rapidly becoming a dust bowl," said Sam Dean, a Bishop plumbing contractor elected to the Board of Supervisors in June. "If we can't protect the environment of this valley, we might as well go to court."

Smith, who advised suing Los Angeles when he was the top officer of Inyo County, contends that sophisticated DWP engineers overwhelmed the county and its water director, Greg James, during more than two years of negotiations.

"The DWP are professionals. Our Board of Supervisors and Greg James are not. It's just a fact of life," said Smith, who retired from the county in 1982. "I think the county is selling out to the city of Los Angeles."

James, a frequent target of DWP critics here, defends the agreement as the strongest protection possible for Owens Valley. The environmental impact report released Friday shows that no more than 58,000 acres are sensitive to water pumping and all will be monitored, he said. "I hope it will make the debate a little more factual and less emotional," James said.

If people reject the agreement, Los Angeles pumps could run unchecked while the two sides battle in court, he said--"if they go back to court they'll fight for 10 years."

Thaddeus Taylor, a local stockbroker who serves as an Inyo County water commissioner, said residents should be satisfied even though the deal does not reverse the visual blight that many blame on DWP.

"We'll never get even," Taylor said. "I'm not on the take and I'm not a fool. I'm better educated on this than most people--and I believe in my heart of hearts that this is right."

But he acknowledges that anything backed by the DWP is a hard sell in the Owens Valley. "The history is pretty awesome," Taylor says. "L.A. has bullied people. They have used nefarious means. They've taken what was an old California city (Bishop) and very nearly destroyed it."

The population around Bishop, about 12,000, is almost the same as in 1980. Inyo County had the slowest population growth--1.6%--of any California area in the 1980s except for tiny Alpine County, early census figures for 1990 show. Elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada, counties such as Calaveras and Amador grew by more than 50%.

"There's the adage that something that doesn't grow dies," said John Robinson, past president of the Northern Inyo Economic Development Corp., which has frequent contact with developers who want to build here. "But it's a very difficult situation because of the land constraints. There is no land."

Despite the tourist dollars flowing into Bishop, the only significant development in recent years has been the opening of K Mart and Payless stores. K Mart waited 11 years for a spot in Bishop, City Manager Rick Pucci said, and other commercial ventures have inquired but found no land available.

Because so few people live here, jobs in the motels and cafes that serve tourists often go begging. But local sons and daughters often move away to find careers that pay enough to raise a family.

"We're colonials," said Bishop Mayor Jane Fisher, a longtime resident and author about valley history. "I think we could have reasonable growth without jeopardizing the small-town quality. Our young people can't stay."

Nonetheless, some people regard the DWP as the secret to the good life. Most DWP land and reservoirs are open to the public. With homes kept artificially in short supply, values have soared. Homes with flowing streams and duck ponds in West Bishop sell for $500,000 and the average in town is pushing $130,000, brokers say.

Some also credit the DWP with keeping Owens Valley relatively free of condos, highway billboards and fast-food emporiums.

"I like the relationship that exists," said Liz Blackwell, a financial planner who ran unsuccessfully for county supervisor this year. "We really can contain our growth because DWP owns so much land."

The top man in Owens Valley for the DWP, Duane Buchholz, says the vital interest of Los Angeles is simple. The city wants to preserve its water rights, which ensure Los Angeles a cheap supply of pure Sierra water and which are a source of income to the DWP. So the city plans to keep its range land vacant.

However, he said, 26 acres that the DWP owns within Bishop and 75 acres in other valley towns would be sold off if the legal settlement with Inyo County becomes final next year. The deal still must be approved by the Inyo County supervisors, Los Angeles officials and a state Court of Appeal. Los Angeles, which in 1933 owned 85% of all the town property in the valley, wants to gradually divest the homes and business lots that it owns, he said.

"We probably still own 20% of Main Street in Bishop," Buchholz said. "But our board (the Los Angeles Water and Power Commission) wants us to get out of the commercial leasing business."

That would relieve critics who believe that the DWP has used the clout of its leases to smother dissent.

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