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L.A. took their water and land a century ago. Now the Owens Valley is fighting back

A century ago, agents from Los Angeles converged on the Owens Valley on a secret mission.

They figured out who owned water rights in the lush valley and began quietly purchasing land, posing as ranchers and farmers.

Soon, residents of the Eastern Sierra realized much of the water rights were now owned by Los Angeles interests. L.A. proceeded to drain the valley, taking the water via a great aqueduct to fuel the metropolis’ explosive growth.

This scheme became an essential piece of California history and the subject of the classic 1974 film “Chinatown.” In the Owens Valley, it is still known as the original sin that sparked decades of hatred for Los Angeles as the valley dried up and ranchers and farmers struggled to make a living.

But now, the Owens Valley is trying to rectify this dark moment in its history.

Officials have launched eminent domain proceedings in an effort to take property acquired by Los Angeles in the early 1900s.

Owens Valley wants to reclaim its history

It is the first time Inyo County has used eminent domain rules against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which owns 25% of the Owens Valley floor, officials said Wednesday.

Unlike previous battles with the DWP that focused on the environmental and economic damage caused by L.A.'s pumping of local water supplies, the county seeks to pay fair market value for property and water rights needed for landfills, parks, commerce and ranchlands along a 112-mile stretch of Highway 395 east of the Sierra Nevada.

“We’re using a hammer the DWP has never seen before in Owens Valley,” Inyo County Supervisor Rick Pucci said. “Our goal is the future health and safety of our communities.”

The move comes after years of efforts by Los Angeles to make amends for taking the region’s land and water. In 2013, for instance, the city agreed to fast-track measures to control toxic dust storms that have blown across the eastern Sierra Nevada since L.A. opened the aqueduct a century ago that drained Owens Lake.

As a gesture of conciliation, the city a year ago erected a $4.6-million monument of granite and sculpted earth that now rises from a dry bed of Owens Lake. It features a public plaza with curved granite walls inspired by the wing shapes of shorebirds. Sculptures of earth and rock have been made to resemble whitecaps like those that graced the lake’s surface before it was transformed into a noxious dust bowl.

L.A. concerns about giving back land

But in Owens Valley, Angelenos bearing gifts have always elicited skepticism, and occasionally sparked eruptions of violence. The aqueduct was dynamited repeatedly after increased pumping exacerbated a drought during the 1920s that laid waste to local farms and businesses.

Inyo County officials see their effort to take back DWP land as an important step in taking back local control.

That worries DWP officials, who acknowledged they were caught off guard by the action.

“This is brand new. It could be a slippery slope and where it would lead us I don’t know,” Marty Adams, chief operating officer at the agency, said. “The county also wants the water rights on certain properties, which could have a cascading effect. We’re very concerned about that.”

The Inyo County Board of Supervisors directed its staff to study the use of eminent domain after the DWP a year ago proposed a fourfold rent increase of more than $20,000 annually at a landfill in Bishop operated by the county on land it has leased from the DWP for decades, Rick Benson, assistant county administrator, said.

The proposed lease included a clause allowing the DWP to terminate the agreement for any reason with a 180-day notice, he said.

After months of heated negotiations, the county approved the new three-year lease agreement in January because, Benson said: “We had no choice.”

“We’re mandated by the state to provide environmentally sound means of disposal,” he said. “But the cost of abandoning that landfill and building and certifying a new one elsewhere would be astronomical.”

Beyond that, he said, the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery refused to renew an operating permit for the landfill until a new lease was in place on the property.

Valley towns struggling to survive

In March, Inyo County Administrator Kevin Carunchio notified the DWP of the county’s decision to condemn that landfill site and two others in the towns of Independence and Lone Pine. That would set in motion legal proceedings that could lead to its taking ownership from the DWP.

A county appraisal concluded a fair market value for the total 200 acres of $522,000, county officials said. On Monday, the DWP declined that offer, saying it had yet to complete its own appraisals.

Some officials are already raising the possibility of mounting crowd-sourcing campaigns to fund additional acquisitions of DWP land for public benefit.

“The county would obviously like more economic opportunities,” the DWP’s Adams said, “and we support that.”

In the meantime, Owens Valley towns — including Big Pine, Independence, Lone Pine and Olancha — struggle to survive, with most of their developable land and water rights controlled by the DWP.

In 1997, the DWP agreed to relinquish 75 acres in the Owens Valley for residential and commercial uses, and the county amended its General Plan to ensure that land exchanges did not result in a net loss of tax base or revenues. Since then, county officials say, lots on only a fraction of that acreage have changed hands because the DWP has tended to set minimum bids far above market value.

In 2009, a group of Owens Valley residents sent a petition to then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council urging them to force the DWP to compensate for the loss of private land it planned to buy in the region by releasing an equal amount of its own holdings elsewhere. The city never responded, according to activists who helped write the petition.

The DWP has spent more than $1 billion to comply with a 1997 agreement with the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District to combat the powder-fine dust from the dry 110-square-mile Owens Lake bed.

Separately, after decades of political bickering and a bruising court fight, the DWP directed water back into a 62-mile-long stretch of the Lower Owens River that had been left essentially dry after its flows of Sierra snowmelt were diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct. But it later balked at removing thick stands of reeds that swiftly choked the renewed river.

The DWP caused an uproar during the drought in 2015 when it gave ranchers 48 hours’ notice of its intention to reduce their irrigation water from the usual 49,000 acre-feet a year to 20,500 acre-feet a year. The agency abandoned the deadline after Inyo County threatened to seek an injunction to stop what it claimed was a violation of long-term water agreements that would devastate the local economy.

Some itching for a fight with L.A.

Farming and ranching generate $20 million a year in rural Inyo County, second only to tourism, officials said.

Jenifer Castaneda, a Lone Pine real estate broker and community activist, had one word to say about the county’s use of eminent domain: “Awesome.”

Castaneda said she only hopes local leaders are ready for a long fight and that they don’t “cave when Los Angeles dangles some kind of big fat carrot in front of their noses."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

Twitter: @LouisSahagun

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