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The State

Judge Asked to Halt Owens Valley Water Flow to L.A.

September 10, 2002|STEVE HYMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Angered by delays in restoring the long-dry lower Owens River, two conservation groups asked a judge to halt the exportation of ground water from the Owens Valley in eastern California by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The action, if approved by Inyo County Superior Court Judge Edward Denton, would represent a substantial hit to the city's water supplies. In most years, the DWP sends at least 15,000 acre-feet of ground water--or 4.9 billion gallons--south to Los Angeles from the valley.

That's a small percentage of the city's supply, but it's enough water for about 75,000 people for a year and would cost more than $5 million to replace, the DWP said.

The judge is scheduled to meet with lawyers in the case Thursday.

Mark Bagley of the Sierra Club said the only way the DWP will honor a 5-year-old commitment to provide water for the lower Owens River is if the agency feels its water supply is threatened.

"I think this will get their attention," Bagley said.

In 1997, the DWP agreed to put a steady flow of water back into 61 miles of the lower Owens, which largely dried up after Los Angeles began diverting river water into the city's aqueduct in 1913. Under the recent agreement, some of the restored water, after flowing 61 miles, would be pumped back into the aqueduct.

As part of the deal, the DWP agreed to collaborate with the Inyo County Water Department on an environmental study of the project and release it for public review by June 2000. The agencies missed that deadline and three others since.

The DWP recently asked the court to push back the latest deadline from Sept. 30 to Nov. 18; the Sierra Club and the Owens Valley Committee asked Friday for the ground water shutdown.

Bagley said the delays fit into what he sees as a long-standing pattern in the valley.

"They want the project delayed," he said. "The DWP realizes it has a huge budget for lawyers, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting this legally is still cheaper than losing that water."

"We can understand their frustration and sympathize with them over the delays," said Gene Coufal, manager of the Los Angeles Aqueduct for the DWP. "It's taking longer than anyone anticipated."

Coufal said it's worth the time to get the study right, because a flawed report would further delay the Owens River restoration.

A recurring problem has been a dispute between environmentalists and the DWP over the size of the pump that would draw water from the river to the aqueduct. The environmentalists and Inyo County officials contend that the pump proposed by the DWP would leave too little water in the river.

The DWP says the pump is needed to recover surplus water supplied to the river.

Over the last 30 years, a series of lawsuits and agreements has forced the DWP to surrender vast amounts of water it once took from the Owens Valley.

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