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In the Owens Valley, resentment again flows with the water

L.A.'s Department of Water and Power is prospecting again for land and water rights in the valley. Unlike past battles, the focus is on real estate locals say is needed for commerce along Highway 395.

May 16, 2009|Louis Sahagun

Robert Bell, who was a construction worker for the DWP until he won a $9-million lottery jackpot in 1988, declined to comment on the land or his decision to sell it, citing confidentiality agreements. "I can talk about it later," he said. "Not right now."

County officials and residents say the DWP also has expressed interest in acquiring an 80-acre site with water rights in Big Pine, as well as at least one parcel with water rights adjacent to the Bell brothers' property.

The last time the DWP bought a chunk of land larger than 100 acres with water rights was in 1986, a department spokesman said.

Three weeks ago, Nahai said he visited a group of Owens Valley cattle ranchers who receive significant DWP water allotments, "to talk with them about our dire water situation."

The last time the DWP curtailed water allotments for valley ranching and agriculture was during the drought of 1991.

Some residents view Castaneda and Palamar and dozens of others who signed their petition as heroes for daring to take their case to the Inyo County Board of Supervisors and Los Angeles City Hall.

Said Inyo County Supervisor Marty Fortney, who operates a camping and fishing resort on land leased from the DWP: "If they can get DWP off the stick to release some of its land at a reasonable price, then more power to them."

"But forcing the DWP to do anything around here is like trying to squeeze a bull through a window -- probably ain't going to happen," he said with a smile. "In this country, the DWP is God, and it makes the rules."

Castaneda agreed -- to a point.

"If people don't speak up," she said, "there won't be any businesses or livelihoods left to fight for."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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