War broke out in the Mojave Desert on Thursday, and at stake is the single most precious commodity in this vast, arid land--water.
On one side are the 50,000 people of Barstow who have watched with alarm as the city's water table has plummeted 43 feet over the past three years to an all-time low.
Their rivals are a cluster of mushrooming communities upstream on the Mojave River. With a collective annual growth rate of nearly 25%, Hesperia, Adelanto and other burgs in the Victor Valley have been forced to pump more and more ground water to slake their mounting thirst.
On Thursday, Barstow officials announced they had filed a lawsuit charging that their upstream neighbors are taking more than their fair share of river water. Barstow officials want a judge to confirm they are being unjustly deprived and guarantee the city a set portion of river flow for the future.
The lawsuit marks the first salvo in what promises to become Southern California's newest nasty battle over water rights. Aware that court fights can take years of expensive legal maneuvering, Barstow leaders nonetheless say litigation was their only way out of the crisis.
"The bottom line is, if there isn't any water in Barstow, then there isn't any Barstow," City Manager Eric Ziegler declared at a press conference where a row of charts dramatically illustrated the city's water woes. "We simply cannot stand by and allow those upstream cities to take our water and turn Barstow into a ghost town."
Reaction to Barstow's offensive was swift. Hesperia Mayor Bruce Kitchen, whose city is among 100 named defendants of the lawsuit, called Barstow's action "unfortunate" and said it would increase hostilities between the desert municipalities while failing to solve the water shortage.
Kitchen conceded that Hesperia--which has grown from about 12,000 to 66,000 in 10 years--has contributed to the depletion of the Mojave River basin. But he argued that Barstow's water troubles are an unfortunate coincidence of geography and suggested that the city "stop suing everybody and start looking for new water sources."
Apple Valley Mayor Dick Pearson denied that his community was gulping an excessive amount of water and lamented that Barstow did not "sit down with us and seek a more peaceful way" out of its dilemma. Lawsuits, Pearson said, "just leave bad feelings and make the attorneys richer."
The Mojave River, which flows north for 90 miles from the Forks Dam near Silverwood Lake, is the only source of water for Barstow and most other high desert communities of San Bernardino County. For nearly all its distance, the river flows underground, prompting some to call it the "upside down river."
As early as 1950, the river's subterranean stream and the ground water basins beneath it were being pumped out faster than they were being replenished by rainfall and mountain snowmelt. That situation has persisted, but only became critical over the past decade, as the demand for water rose markedly in the Victor Valley.
In Barstow, which is along the middle reaches of the river, the water table began dropping precipitously three years ago and recently reached its lowest level in the 60 years records have been kept. While the drought may have compounded the situation, city officials insist the true culprit is growth upstream.
"I feel that Barstow is on the verge of expanding . . . and I don't want to see water troubles stifle that growth," Councilman Manuel Gurule said. "Barstow is ready for it and deserves it."
The lawsuit, filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court, targets only those upstream water users who pump more than 10 acre-feet annually from the Mojave River. An acre-foot of water is 325,872 gallons, or enough to meet the needs of an average household for one year.
It seeks a court order that an average annual volume of 30,000 acre-feet flow downstream for use by Barstow. That amount was determined to be Barstow's "fair share" by a consultant hired by the city.
The lawsuit also calls on the Mojave Water Agency to adopt a water management plan for the river basin.
While the lawsuit does not seek to limit the amount of water other cities may pump, Barstow officials say they may may seek a court injunction freezing water use at current levels. Such a move would undoubtedly curb new water service connections, forcing a building moratorium.
Joining Barstow as plaintiffs in the action is the Southern California Water Co., Barstow's water supplier.