YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Aussie Water Lesson

September 07, 2002

Pity the man from Snowy River. They took his water, just as the city of Los Angeles drained the Owens Valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada nearly a century ago. But at least Australia's river is getting back some of its natural flow.

As the Associated Press reported from Canberra, Australia: "Reduced for decades to a muddy trickle by a hydroelectric and irrigation project, the Snowy River began flowing again [Aug. 28] under an ambitious plan to revive the iconic waterway."

In the huge project, built between 1949 and 1974, more than 100,000 workers bored giant tunnels through the Snowy Mountains to carry the river's waters to farms on the arid west side of the range. The region won fame through the Wild West-like epic poem "The Man From Snowy River," by A.B. Paterson, and the popular movie of the same name.

Now Australian officials have closed a valve on an aqueduct and part of the flow generated by the Snowy Mountains is returning to its natural course.

Farmers of the region aren't happy with the re-diversion, but New South Wales Premier Bob Carr said the river faced destruction if the flow of the pristine mountain waters was not restored.

Unfortunately, closer to home, the battle lines remain. Beginning in 1913, Los Angeles began sending the flow of the Owens River more than 200 miles south to feed growth and development. Later, the city tapped the Sierra Nevada waters that fed Mono Lake and drilled wells in the Owens Valley to increase supply. During the 1970s, in an effort to force Los Angeles to give up much of the water, environmental groups and Inyo County began a long string of legal actions against the city for the damage done by the diversions. The city lost many of these.

As part of a 1991 agreement, revised in 1997, the city agreed to return water to the drained lower Owens River beginning in 2003. That's not likely now. Complications have arisen, and the Sierra Club and others are suing the city.

It's a familiar but sad old story. One fight is over the size of the pump the city would use to recapture the water at the south end of the river and return the flow to the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The city wants a big pump. Environmentalists say that the agreement calls for a smaller pump. The hidden issue is whether the city really wants the bigger pump so it can take more ground water from the valley. What's needed is an ironclad agreement by the city that this will not be done--and a pump just big enough to return the lower river water to the aqueduct.

As with the Snowy River, a revived Owens would have only a fraction of its natural flow, but enough to restore and sustain the fishery and riverbank environment. It would be a historic event and add to the natural and recreational bounty of the Eastern Sierra.

Los Angeles Times Articles