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Water War : Clydesdale Breeder Fights County Over Well Repairs, Delivery and Pollution


AZUSA — More than a century ago, bitter wars over water rights were fought with guns and angry words in Azusa's San Gabriel Canyon.

Now, Ralph Covell, a cowboy of a guy who breeds champion Clydesdale horses in the canyon's mouth, is fighting his own version of a water war against the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

On Monday, the county stopped trucking water to Covell's 163-acre ranch, home to six families and 60 horses, including 40 water-guzzling Clydesdales.

For two years, the county had brought water to the ranch because a county project to clean out nearby Morris Reservoir had sullied the ranch well. Ever since then, Covell has fought with the county over repairs to the well.

To cool heated tempers, Azusa city officials acted as negotiators between the warring factions and on Tuesday arranged for temporary water deliveries.

"It's pretty amazing," said Covell, a ruddy-faced, bearded man who at age 46 looks the part of a horse breeder. "The county comes in and pollutes your well and tears up your water lines and makes you out to be the bad guy."

County officials assert that the story is not as simple as Covell presents it. Regardless, both sides agree that they very much disagree and that they hope the dispute ends soon.

The debate began in September, 1991. In a controversial county project to clean out the thick layer of debris and rocks that for decades had clogged the bottom of Morris Reservoir along the San Gabriel River, the mucky slush was washed downstream in a torrent through San Gabriel Canyon.

By all accounts, this sluicing process somehow plugged up the century-old well that supplied water to the Covell ranch alongside the river. The well, Covell said, still won't work and complicated repairs haven't been made.

Three times a week at a cost of $7,000 a month, the county has trucked water to the ranch while Covell and county officials tried to resolve the problem.

"My place looks like the 'Grapes of Wrath' with dead trees and dead lawns everywhere. It's a regular dust bowl up here," Covell said, adding that he has to make 60,000 to 70,000 gallons of water a week go a long way for three houses, three mobile homes and for the one-ton Clydesdales that can easily drink a barrel of water a day.

Fourteen children and adults live at the ranch, including ranch workers and tenants. Covell and his wife, Katherine, live in a stucco, hacienda-style house that has a commanding view of San Gabriel Canyon.

The motif is Clydesdale-cowboy, with a living room filled with trophies and ribbons attesting that the Covell horses--28 of which will be on display at the Los Angeles County Fair this week--are among the best in the West.

He proudly showed off photographs of six horses being used in a movie shoot this month in Arizona with actors James Spader and Kurt Russell.

"There's been fights over water in this canyon since Henry Dalton (a pioneer settler of the Azusa foothills) came here in the 1800s. But I'd rather get along with (the county) than fight. I don't sleep when this stuff happens. What really got my dander up is the way they say I'm dragging my feet."

County officials say Covell himself is to blame for this week's water delivery snafu and for the delays in the repairs of the well and water lines.

But deputy public works director Donald Wolfe said the county will gladly make the basic repairs needed. "We're not going to quibble over lengths of pipe and U-joints."

However, he said he believes the well can be repaired with less effort than Covell suggests.

Beyond that, Wolfe said that for more than a year the county has not been legally obligated to supply Covell with water.

Since the fall of 1992, he said, the river has been essentially running clear as gin and free from the silt that had clogged the well.

"It became clear the only way we were going to resolve this was to stop delivering the water," Wolfe said.

In December, 1992, he said, the county sent its first notice to Covell that the water delivery would be stopped.

The letter was sent, Wolfe said, as an incentive to get Covell to file a claim over whatever damages he thought he was owed by the county.

Covell, county officials said, responded by saying he would file a claim. But he never did.

After several meetings and phone calls, and a second threatening letter in June, the county granted him an extension.

But he failed to submit a claim. So he was sent a third letter on Sept. 1. saying the water delivery would be discontinued Sept. 20 unless he filed a claim.

"I don't understand why he hasn't submitted a claim," Wolfe said. "I've tried to convince him we want nothing better than to settle up with him. We can't do anything unless he files."

For his part, Covell says he just wants the well and water lines repaired. And he wants assurances that the muddy debris from Morris Reservoir sludge wasn't polluted.

The pollution issue, he said, has hung up negotiations.

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