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Brewery Plans to Tap Springs : Water Controversy Comes to a Head in Owens Valley

Times Staff Writer

In Owens Valley lore, Los Angeles is the villain who came for a drink of water and never left. The city’s Department of Water and Power pipes most of the water south and dominates the valley’s economy as the biggest employer and landlord to most of the cattle ranches and coffee shops along U.S. 395.

Now, after 80 years of often contentious co-existence with Los Angeles, the desert valley beneath Mt. Whitney on the eastern flank of Sierra Nevada is warily eyeing a thirsty new outsider from the south--the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Van Nuys.

Anheuser-Busch has added a new twist to California water practices by acquiring a working cattle ranch, the Cabin Bar, to ensure a steady supply of water at the brewery. The cattle will remain, but the brewery wants the underground springs that make the Cabin Bar Ranch the only patch of green pasture for 50 miles either way along U.S. 395.

The plan rankles many Owens Valley residents, since it would be the first export of Inyo County water south by a private landowner since Los Angeles began buying up the valley early this century. Some fear that it could open the way for other ranchers to sell their water rights to the highest bidder and further drain the valley, a once-fertile area with ambitions of greatness that dried up with its agriculture after Los Angeles began taking water south.

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Anheuser-Busch would also break tradition and become the state’s first private holder of water rights to use a publicly owned aqueduct. The water would be shipped 233 miles south to Van Nuys down the two Los Angeles Aqueducts under a 1986 state law authored by state Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda).

The Katz law forbids using the aqueduct if serious environmental damage would occur in Inyo County, and Anheuser-Busch has pledged to only take water if rationing is imposed in Los Angeles. But ground water is a touchy subject in the Owens Valley, where many blame DWP pumps for killing the willow and fruit trees and lowering the water table.

“Basically, the people around here don’t know what to think,” said Melinda Salmonds, who lives within sight of Cabin Bar pastures. “Cartago is very concerned.”

‘Contaminating Our Wells’

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Cartago, a tiny clump of houses along U.S. 395, sits on the former western shore of Owens Lake. The salt lake dried up in 1926 after DWP engineers diked and diverted its feeder streams into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Local residents fear that the massive pumps Anheuser-Busch plans to use will suck down their wells and lead to contamination from the briny water beneath the lake bed.

“We have a good chance of the lake coming in and contaminating our wells,” Salmonds said. “You’re only talking about 100 people, but we are a community here.” Buck Elton, a former partner in the Cabin Bar, bottles water for sale on his adjacent ranch, which like Cabin Bar is rich in artesian springs.

“I have no sodium in my water, that’s why Arrowhead buys it,” Elton said. “But if I get salt in my water it’s all over.”

Mistrust ran strong enough to draw 80 local residents to the nearby Olancha school for a Feb. 14 meeting at which Anheuser-Busch officials tried to soothe fears. Word that the DWP would oversee the environmental review process required by law did not set well.

Seething Feature of Life

“My personal feeling is I am not as worried about Anheuser-Busch as I am about the DWP,” Salmonds said. “DWP has proven itself over and over.”

Resentment of Los Angeles is a seething feature of life in the Owens Valley. Many, if not most, businesses sit on DWP land and depend on short-term leases to stay open. In the Owens Valley phone book, there are more listings for the city of Los Angeles than the area’s other two incorporated cities combined, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes.

“They own half the houses in the county,” Elton said. “It’s really not necessary for a public utility to own a Mexican restaurant.”

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Many residents also complain that Los Angeles already pumps too much ground water from local wells. Fears of more pumping grew when the DWP recently acquired the Spencer, Thornburgh and Lacey ranches near Cartago.

The opponents have even been backed by letters from outsiders to the DWP questioning the use of Owens Valley water for beer.

“How dare you even propose to rape the ground water of the Owens Valley again . . . for the purpose of supplying a brewery?” Janet Haas of San Francisco wrote.

Million Gallons of Beer

But Owens Valley water has always supplied the Van Nuys brewery, which is one of the top three water consumers in Los Angeles. The brewery produces about a million gallons of various beer brands a month and employs 1,400 people.

Tom Aldrich, vice president for Anheuser-Busch, said the brewery does not deserve to be treated with the same disdain shown to Los Angeles by many local residents.

“We’re really not a city,” Aldrich said. “The amount of water we would move is so much less than Los Angeles that we don’t really find it comparable.”

Rumors sweeping the valley that Anheuser-Busch would pump the water even if it is not needed for beer-making and sell it on the open market are not true, Aldrich said. The brewery considered bottling the water for sale and has been approached by prospective buyers, but Aldrich says the firm plans to hold the water in reserve.

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“We’re really not interested in selling water,” Aldrich said. “We don’t plan any other use of the water.”

Backed as a Reform Move

Anheuser-Busch acquired the ranch from Richard Stevens, a former executive with the Wrather Corp. Elton, a former partner with Stevens in the Cabin Bar, said the 504 acres sold for $7.6 million over several years, but other local estimates put the price at about half that amount. Anheuser-Busch would not discuss the price.

The Katz law did not address beer brewing, but instead was backed by environmental groups as a reform move to encourage transfers of water throughout the state. It requires that owners of aqueducts use excess capacity to carry water owned by others, even competitors.

Katz said he originally intended to forbid private water exports from Inyo and Mono counties, but after discussions with local officials and other lawmakers the law was changed to require only that the exports not cause serious environmental or economic harm.

A possible hurdle was raised by the state Department of Fish and Game, which takes the position that springs on the Cabin Bar Ranch form one of the last vital wetlands in Owens Valley. The wetlands is home to endangered birds and other wildlife.

Impact on Pasture Lands

The agricultural commissioner for Inyo and Mono counties raised questions about the impact on pasture lands downstream from Cartago. The local mosquito abatement officer also warned that any change in the seepage of water from springs on the Cabin Bar could increase the mosquito nuisance for 10 miles around.

DWP officials say they are overseeing the environmental reviews in their role as owner of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. They are also concerned that the Anheuser-Busch plan not turn into a controversy that jeopardizes negotiations with Inyo County over the city’s future water rights, the DWP’s Glenn Singley said.

“We’re keeping a watchful eye on it,” Singley said.


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