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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

"If you stand up to them they'll use it against you--they're bullies, they're just bullies," said Dan Miller, water chairman for the Paiute Indian Reservation in Independence, who has a disputed lease with DWP.

DWP officials deny using their power for political purposes, but suspicion soared recently when Weststar Cable, which provides TV service to Bishop, canceled the only local news program in Owens Valley.

The company said it was mostly a business decision. But others saw it as retribution against newscaster Bennett Kessler, who often reports critically on the DWP.

"The Board of Supervisors and DWP are very down on Bennett Kessler, but she does a good job," said Smith, the former Inyo County administrator and an investor in the news program. "I have no proof (of DWP involvement) but that's how things are handled here. DWP is extremely influential in the Owens Valley."

Supporters say they have about 1,000 signatures from people who want the news show reinstated. Kessler has been a thorn in the DWP's side since she teamed in 1975 with free-lance journalist John Heston, a controversial figure locally for, among other things, being something of a guru to troubled youths and--here in cattle country--being a vegetarian.

Since 1982 they have been partners in the news program aired over cable Channel 12 in Bishop and their Eastern Sierra News Service provides news tips and video footage to media in Los Angeles, including The Times.

"There is not one bit of media in this area--except us--that is independent of the DWP," said Heston.

KEEPER OF THE VALLEY

Owens Valley is 250 miles north of Los Angeles, but the city's Department of Water andPower is the main landlord in the scenic mountain region.

Los Angeles has gradually acquired more than 300 square miles of Owens Valley to secure rights to water in the Owens River and below ground.

The land is mostly leased for cattle pasture and required to be open for public use. Since the DWP disallows growth, some of the 18,000 residents credit its hold on the land with preserving the wide-open vistas of Sierra peaks.

But a more controversial result is the squezzing of valley towns, which have almost no private land for development. Independence, the Inyo County seat, is fading into a dot on the map as residents leave and businesses close.

Bishop, the only city in the area, is holding its own. But though it is surrounded by open range, lack of land caused Bishop to miss the 1980's economic boom in California's mountains.

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