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Residents’ Concerns Force Inyo County to Reopen Water Talks

Times Staff Writer

Vehement Owens Valley opposition has forced new talks on the major water agreement reached in principle in March by the city of Los Angeles and Inyo County, officials on both sides said Wednesday.

The Inyo County Board of Supervisors had been scheduled to approve the agreement Tuesday, but instead the board reopened negotiations with Los Angeles after listening for weeks to strong objections from Owens Valley ranchers and residents.

Any agreement will have to include more environmental protections for Owens Valley, officials there said.

‘More Accommodation’

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“We don’t know where or if we are going to reach any more accommodation with the city of Los Angeles,” said Greg James, head of Inyo County’s Water Department and the county counsel.

In a controversial arrangement dating from early in this century, Los Angeles obtained most of its water supply from eastern Sierra Nevada streams and underground aquifers beneath Owens Valley, about 200 miles north of the city limits. The water flows by gravity across the Mojave Desert to the San Fernando Valley in the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Exports of eastern Sierra water to Los Angeles dried up Owens Lake many decades ago, leaving a salt bed where huge clouds of caustic dust originate. More recently, Los Angeles wells are blamed for lowering the Owens Valley water table and killing trees and grasslands.

Inyo County and Los Angeles have sued each other, with the county trying to hold Los Angeles responsible for environmental damage and the city alleging that Inyo County is meddling in long-established water rights.

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Months of Negotiations

The March agreement, announced after months of private negotiations, was an attempt to settle the lawsuits without a legal judgment that could leave one side as the big loser.

The agreement would have allowed Los Angeles to increase its ground water pumping in the Owens Valley. But it would also have set up a system to monitor environmental damage and called for shutting down any well that draws down the water table to perilous levels.

At large public meetings last month, Owens Valley property owners complained that the agreement was not sufficiently strong to guarantee against future environmental damage. The opponents included ranchers who have preached moderation in negotiations with Los Angeles, as well as activists who would like to see the city’s water exports sharply reduced.

James said he was not surprised by the vigor of the objections that he said made clear that local residents will not tolerate any new environmental damage by the Los Angeles wells.

Duane Georgeson, the top water official for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said the strength of the objections and Inyo County’s wish for new negotiations do not mean the March agreement is dead.

“My own view is the agreement is very much alive,” Georgeson said Wednesday, although he acknowledged that new talks had begun. “We’re trying to clarify some areas.”

In addition to setting up new rules for ground water pumping, the agreement would have called on the DWP to sell some of its acreage in Owens Valley. The DWP is the valley’s biggest landlord, and Inyo County officials say the lack of private land for development impedes growth.

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Under the agreement, Los Angeles would also release more water into the Owens River to improve fishing.


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