YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The State

L.A. Plan for Owens River Is Criticized

Activists complain that the DWP's blueprint to restore a 62-mile stretch of the waterway was completed without Inyo County or U.S. help.

June 24, 2004|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

A long-awaited Los Angeles Department of Water and Power blueprint for restoring a 62-mile stretch of the Owens River hit a snag immediately after it was released Wednesday, with environmentalists calling it inadequate and threatening to challenge the proposal.

Of particular concern was the DWP's decision in April to complete the 1,000-page final environmental review of the Lower Owens River Restoration Project without the cooperation of Inyo County and the federal Environmental Protection Agency as required under terms of a court agreement.

"The DWP broke its word, which is an outrage," said Mike Prather, an activist with the Owens Valley Committee, a group seeking to restore the river and its wildlife and habitat. "By walking off and doing it alone," the DWP "all but guaranteed that the final environmental review would be inadequate. Anything the DWP does by itself requires a lot of public scrutiny."

DWP officials, however, insisted that they had taken all necessary steps to meet legal requirements and avoid delays in getting water flowing again in the section of river running from the Los Angeles Aqueduct just south of Big Pine to the Owens Lake delta.

"We understand there are many concerns about this document," said Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Doane Liu. "The DWP did the best job it could to address all of the concerns that were presented during the entire process."

The acrimony raises concerns about further delays in beginning work on one of the largest habitat rehabilitation efforts in the West. The project is two years behind schedule.

The goal is to create a healthy riparian ecosystem and fishery along the river and extensive nearby wetlands for shorebirds and ducks. The restored environment would, in turn, enhance recreational activities and boost Owens Valley's economy.

Inyo County has played a key role in negotiations to restore the lower Owens, which was reduced to a trickle in 1913 when the river water was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct for delivery 200 miles south in the San Fernando Valley.

The aqueduct caused Owens Lake to go dry and turned the surrounding lush valley into a dust bowl, a source of resentment throughout the Eastern Sierra watershed to this day.

"It's easy to get pessimistic," said Inyo County Water Director Greg James. "Los Angeles has a long, unpleasant history in the Owens Valley, and that legacy endures. A lot of people just don't trust it."

The current battle aims to settle 29 years of legal disputes over environmental effects resulting from the city's groundwater pumping in Owens Valley from 1970 to 1990.

"There's a possibility the plan may be headed back to court," James said. "But our primary goal is to not delay the project while the issues over adequacy of the review are being resolved."

Jerry Gewe, chief operating officer of the DWP water system, said his agency had no choice but to finish the review on its own. As the project's lead agency, the DWP faced court sanctions if the document had not been finished by Wednesday.

"As most of us know, it is a much more time-consuming process when you must reach consensus among several agencies that often have different priorities and responsibilities," Gewe said in a prepared statement. "We were making progress in resolving the remaining issues, but time was running out."

Nonetheless, the EPA on Wednesday demanded that the DWP strike any reference to federal participation in the environmental review process on grounds that it had been edged out in April.

The DWP responded by saying that it was too late to amend the report, which had gone to print.

Inyo County was slated to receive $6 million from the EPA to cover a portion of its share of the restoration effort. On Wednesday, it was unclear whether those funds would still be available, given that the DWP had moved ahead on the environmental review without the EPA's full participation.

DWP officials said the county and EPA have only themselves to blame.

"We met our obligations and protected our interests," said DWP spokesman Gene Coufal. "They should have protected theirs by working together and devoting more staff time to meet the deadline. I don't feel they did that."

Just six months ago, the DWP, Inyo County, the Sierra Club, the California Department of Fish and Game, the California Lands Commission and residents entered into a work agreement trumpeted as the start of "a new era of cooperation."

That appears unlikely. Sierra Club attorney Larry Silver predicted that "new substantial disagreements would surface soon."

Of particular concern, he said, "are questions having to do with who will bear the cost of implementation, operations and maintenance and how to determine whether the project is successful."

The DWP's Board of Water and Power Commissioners will consider the environmental review in August. Critics will then have 30 days to respond.

Los Angeles Times Articles