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Dry Since 1913 : L.A. Returns ‘Stolen’ Water to Owens River

Times City-County Bureau Chief

Los Angeles finally is giving back some of the water local residents say the city stole from them many years ago.

A valve was opened at mid-morning Thursday and water flowed from the Los Angeles Aqueduct into Black Rock Channel, and then into the Owens River, which has been generally dry since 1913.

That was the year--a year of glory for Los Angeles and of infamy here--that the city and its famous chief water engineer, William Mulholland, began diverting water from the river. It went to Los Angeles, more than 230 miles away from the narrow valley adjacent to the towering eastern granite wall of the Sierra Nevada.

‘Spinning in His Grave’

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“He’s spinning in his grave,” a satisfied Inyo County Supervisor Johnny Johnson said of Mulholland, dead many years but still a villain in this area.

Maybe so, but the diversion project, another step in settling the decades-old water war between Los Angeles and the valley, will provide a new fishing stream for Southland residents and a potential boost for the local tourism business--without depriving Los Angeles of a drop of water, officials said.

“This is the culmination of 10 years,” Johnson said before he and Jack Leeney, president of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners, turned the valve. “If I don’t do anything more in my term as supervisor, I think it has been worthwhile.”

Even this day of celebration was not spared at least a minor disagreement. When it came time to turn the valve, Johnson pulled one way and Leeney the other. It turned out that valley old-timer Johnson was correct, and the water was finally released.

Under the project, 20 million gallons of water a day will be diverted from the aqueduct to the river. It will flow from near the Black Rock Fishery 25 miles south toward Owens Lake, which is dry except for years of heavy snow runoff.

Duane Georgeson, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said the city gets 450 million gallons of water a day from the valley.

The Owens Valley is an unusual place. It has a dry desert climate, but plenty of water. That is because the mountains catch passing clouds, which dump huge amounts of precipitation in powerful Sierra snowstorms. In the summer, the melting snow flows into the valley, seeping into the clay valley floor. Thus the valley is a huge, natural underground reservoir holding as much water, Georgeson said, as Lake Mead, the big reservoir behind Hoover Dam.

Inyo County, in which the valley is located, has been battling Los Angeles over this water since the city’s huge water importation project began. After the aqueduct was built, the fight revolved around the underground water supply. When Inyo County won an important court battle in the 1970s, Los Angeles and the county set up a joint committee to reach a settlement.

Enough to Go Around

Wednesday’s event was a result of that agreement. Georgeson said that experts hired by the city and county had determined that there was enough underground water in the valley to allow the diversion into the river.

Water, however, will not flow into Owens Lake, which, except for heavy snowfall years, has been dry since the 1920s.

DWP public affairs officer Ed Freudenberg said that neither Mono County nor Los Angeles want to put more water in the lake. Water would just evaporate, he said. In addition, when water is in the saline-heavy lake bed, salt crystals form on it and are blown around the valley on windy days.

Instead, the river flow will be regulated so that water will either have evaporated or trickled back into the ground by the time it reaches the lake. Once back in the ground, it will be available for shipment to Los Angeles.

‘They’re Lending It’

That prompted Inyo County Supervisor Larry Calkins to comment that Los Angeles was not actually giving back the water.

“They’re lending it,” he said.

Once the river is filled, bass, catfish, bluegill and other warm-water fish will be stocked in it, for the year-round benefit of fishermen. In addition, the water diversion will permit maintenance of Upper and Lower Twin Lakes, Goose Lake, Thibaut Ponds and Billy Lake in the valley.

And, the revived river will provide a bigger and better resting place for ducks and other wildfowl on their seasonal trips along the Pacific Flyway. The project will cost $750,000, officials said.

The Owens Valley provides 75% of Los Angeles’ water supply. The rest comes from wells in the San Fernando Valley and from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which imports water from the Colorado River and from Northern California, through the State Water Project.


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