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WATER RIGHTS

How Blue Was My Valley

Owens Valley--plundered and protected by L.A.--needs a new form of stewardship.

August 01, 2004|D.J. Waldie | D.J. Waldie's most recent book is "Real City: Downtown Los Angeles Inside/Out," in collaboration with photographer Marissa Roth.

The wind in summer whips up clouds of alkali dust from the dry bed of Owens Lake. Sometimes, the grit and salt flecks spin into dust devils that skim toward the lakeshore as if grabbed by big, invisible hands. The dry lake bed and its devils are bitter memorials to what the Department of Water and Power has taken from the Owens Valley since 1913 -- hundreds of billions of gallons of water sent 233 miles south to Los Angeles.

The Owens Valley wasn't the first victim of the city's harsh regime of water extraction. But it is the recognized setting of the city's original sin of greed. It's where some men did the ugly things that had to be done at the start of the 20th century to win the great game of civic prestige and personal wealth. Other cities lost -- notably Santa Monica and Long Beach -- because Los Angeles men had the skill to turn their indifferent real estate into a great metropolis with the water they took from the valley.

Ironically, the crowded square miles of Los Angeles greened by Owens Valley water are almost exactly duplicated by the vacant square miles of valley watershed the DWP bought between 1905 and 1935. The city's alter ego looks nothing like Los Angeles, however. Most of the valley is as near to wilderness as any place in California can be.

The 20,000 people who live in the Owens Valley today and graze their cattle on city-owned land, fish in city-owned streams and hunt in city-owned foothills are protective of the extraordinary environment the DWP gave them, even as they share a common resentment that L.A. raped the valley before making it the place they love and depend on for jobs in agriculture, tourism and the outdoor recreation industry.

A plan, first floated three years ago by former DWP General Manager David Freeman, to put the DWP's 320,000 acres under a "no development" conservation easement was revived last month by two city councilmen, who got a quick civics lesson from DWP commission President Dominick Rubalcava. The unaccountable system that makes the DWP master of the Owens Valley, he reminded them, also bars the City Council from directing how the department uses its land.

A couple of weeks later, Mayor James K. Hahn recycled nearly the same plan as "his vision" for the valley. That misstep earned Hahn another lesson from Rubalcava. Under DWP pressure and with wary valley residents looking on, the mayor wobbled on the issue of a conservancy to hold the valley watershed in trust. Instead, Hahn said he wanted to hear from everyone before making up his mind -- yet again. He went to the valley; met with ranchers, environmentalists, Native Americans and Inyo County officials; and heard what you might expect -- that nostalgia, suspicion, sheer cussedness and self-interest in the valley (and at DWP headquarters) have probably killed the idea of a conservancy.

Ranchers and alfalfa growers are comfortable with the arrangements they've made to lease large parts of the city-owned watershed. Residents of Bishop and Lone Pine favor an undomesticated valley that protects their access to fishing and hunting and keeps softer Southern Californians out. Developers of the few privately owned parcels in the valley are happy with the escalating prices they get for trophy lots with a view of Crowley Lake. Inyo County officials depend on the taxes and fees paid by the DWP for much of their $30-million annual budget. They prefer the DWP -- the devil they know -- to an independent valley conservancy or a state agency in charge of development.

The DWP has its own reasons for fighting to remain the sole guarantor of the valley's open space. There's all that water for Los Angeles, of course, and all those pristine views of it. The DWP controls 50 miles of lakefront and 525 miles of streams in a valley where some lots of less than an acre on private land already sell for half a million dollars. The financially strapped DWP knows the valley intimately -- and knows some of it can be profitably remade as luxury housing and eco-resorts with only a light cost in decreased water production.

The DWP has spent the last century managing thirst in Los Angeles and anger in the Owens Valley by controlling access to the land. There would be rough justice today in putting the valley permanently beyond the reach of the department's land-use authority. But despite the risks for the valley and the city, letting the DWP manage the valley a while longer may not be such a bad idea.

A lot of California has already passed beyond the choices that ordinary Californians might make and into the hands of unelected quasi-governments like the state conservancy proposed for the Owens Valley. The eight conservancies overseen by the state Resources Agency, for example, have small governing boards -- all appointed. Who they represent is fixed by the Legislature, and who gets appointed reflects the political deals made, sometimes decades ago, to pacify the conflicts from which the conservancies were born.

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