A dispute over the size of a pump is jeopardizing an agreement between the city of Los Angeles and the Owens Valley that had been supposed to ease nearly a century of discord over water policy.
The argument centers on a plan to use water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct to restore 61 miles of the lower Owens River. Some of that water would then be pumped from the reborn river back into the aqueduct. The sticking point is how much water and how big a pump the city needs for the task.
The 61-mile stretch has been mostly dry since 1913, when nearly its entire flow was diverted into the newly constructed aqueduct. That engineering feat gave Los Angeles the water it needed to grow into a modern metropolis, but it effectively killed the lower river and caused Owens Lake to dry up.
The current disagreement between the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Inyo County, which includes the Owens Valley, has led to delays in a state-required environmental analysis of the river restoration plan. The delay has prompted the Sierra Club and an Owens Valley conservation group to sue both the Department of Water and Power and Inyo County. According to the terms of an agreement signed in 1997 by the DWP, Inyo County and the environmental groups, the restored Owens River was supposed to flow again in 2003. All sides concede that is unlikely.
Environmentalists have contended that the DWP is stalling to keep Owens Valley water for the city.
"Look, the need for L.A. to have water is no excuse for the DWP to not live up to their obligations," said Mark Bagley, an Owens Valley resident and Sierra Club activist.
The DWP has responded that the larger pump it wants would simply allow Los Angeles to retrieve water it is entitled to.
"Every single issue that comes up, they want me to get less water," said Jerry Gewe, the DWP's assistant general manager for water. "Basically, they want us to put in the smaller pump so there's no possibility of getting that extra water back."
The decades-old fight over Owens Valley water heated up in 1970, when the DWP finished the second Los Angeles Aqueduct. To fill it, the agency began sinking groundwater wells on land it owns throughout the valley.
The water table beneath parts of the valley dropped and springs began drying up. In 1972, Inyo County sued Los Angeles, demanding a study of the wells' environmental effects.
The case dragged on until an agreement was struck in 1991 and then revised in 1997, when Los Angeles promised to do what was once unthinkable: restore the lower Owens River. In exchange, the DWP could continue to pump ground water--a major source of water for the city--and recover some of what it had put back into the river.
The river's new flow would be a fraction of its historic carrying capacity. But there would be enough to save native cottonwoods and willows, provide habitat for four species of endangered fish, and create opportunities for anglers to pursue trout and bass.
On paper, both sides thought they had a good deal. L.A. would get its water, the valley would get its river back. But soon the two sides began arguing about the "pumpback station."
Environmentalists and Inyo County water officials say the DWP agreed in the 1991 deal to a station that could pump 50 cubic feet of water per second. The DWP has acknowledged this, but said it is entitled to pump 150 cubic feet per second under a later agreement that it made to put more water in the lower Owens.
Mike Prather of the Owens Valley Committee, a conservation group, said he fears the larger pump would be a "Trojan horse."
He said he believes the DWP is secretly planning to sink more groundwater wells, and would need the larger pump to move that water, along with the river water, into its aqueduct.
Gene Coufal, the DWP's aqueduct manager, said that Prather's scenario "doesn't make any sense" and that there are no current plans for more wells. But he didn't rule out more groundwater pumping in the valley, providing that it wouldn't hurt the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency weighed in last February, when Janet Parrish, a monitoring officer, wrote that the bigger pump would be economically impractical, given the small amount of water it would recover for Los Angeles, unless the DWP planned to drill more wells.
The DWP said the economics do make sense: When it looks around California, it doesn't see any new water sources.
The city's take of Owens Valley water has fallen precipitously in recent years. Though the valley once provided about 75% of the city's water supply, it will send roughly 40% this year. Most of the rest comes from far Northern California and from the Colorado River.
The DWP and Inyo County are finally scheduled to issue the environmental study of the river project in September. But the study will still offer two options for the project: a small pump and a big pump. So, the dispute will probably end up back in court.