A Truce, Perhaps a Treaty

Down through history, cities and city-states have gone far abroad to develop colonies in order to exploit their precious natural resources--gold, spices, tea, oil and the like. For the past 70 years the City of Los Angeles has had its own colony in the form of Inyo County--300 miles to the north, along the eastern scarp of the Sierra Nevada. The resource is something as precious in its own way as gold or oil. It is water.

Through a system of canals and tunnels that is still an engineering marvel, this city of more than 3 million gets about 80% of its water supply from the Owens River drainage system in Inyo County, population 17,895, and its northern neighbor, Mono County. The saga of how this occurred is a long and bitter one. It has involved dynamite, shotguns, lawsuits and incredible enmity.

The city Department of Water and Power often has been portrayed as the villain of the case--sometimes fairly, sometimes not. Regardless of motives or blame, the environment and the economy of the Owens Valley have been dramatically altered by the water transfer for generations. Inyo County residents, as a result, were left with precious little control over their own destiny.

But now, with a little luck, the details of the long, sad Los Angeles-Owens Valley affair can be pushed to the back of the mind, and perhaps left to the history books. A landmark agreement was signed in Bishop on Tuesday by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Inyo County supervisors that provides at least a truce during which their differences can be negotiated peacefully. With luck and good will, this four-year armistice will lead to a permanent treaty governing the city's authority to pump groundwater from the Owens River basin with proper consideration of the environment of the Owens Valley.

A key to the settlement is the stipulation that there is enough water in most years for both Los Angeles and the valley itself. They would share shortages in dry years.

Credit goes not just to Los Angeles and Inyo County, but also to Owens Valley activists who intervened in the legal fight out of the conviction that the issues were of importance to all Californians.

Inyo County has gained a large measure of political independence. Los Angeles' water engineers can assume the role of partners rather than occupation forces. And Californians can take cheer in the fact that it may be possible for antagonists to resolve even the bitterest of water disputes rationally.

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