Little Towns That the Boom Just Bypassed : Water: They are strung out along the Owens Valley but are virtual colonies of L.A.’s DWP. The utility says growth in the area is bad news and it doesn’t want anybody living on the 245,00 acres.


German and French tourists in search of the American West stop here beside the Sierra Nevada in the evening to grab supper, watch the sun fade behind the jagged crags and bed down in the motels that line U.S. 395.

At sunup, they hit the road again, leaving behind what may be the most unusual resort area in California.

Mountain towns with Bishop’s attributes--a dozen lakes and the Mammoth Mountain ski area nearby, mild winters, a modern hospital--swelled with city refugees in the 1980s, a decade when California added 6 million people. But the Bishop area missed the boom because of a force more powerful than demographics.


Bishop and the smaller towns that dot the Owens Valley--Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine and Laws--are virtual colonies of a real estate empire based 250 miles south. They are encircled by miles of open high desert, plenty of room to grow. But the overlord of all the land--Los Angeles and its Department of Water and Power--says growth here is bad news.

Los Angeles has no plans itself for the land, upwards of 245,000 acres up and down the Owens Valley. It just doesn’t want anyone to live on it.

People use water, and Los Angeles draws more than half of its water supply from the Owens River and from hundreds of wells in the valley. People also vote and complain, and the DWP already has enough political trouble in the colonies.

Demands are increasing to force Los Angeles to defend its history here in court, and the entire Inyo County Board of Supervisors faces ouster this year for being perceived as too cozy with the DWP. Los Angeles is blamed for killing trees and brush, and for strangling the towns by its ban on growth.

“This is by far the worst I’ve seen--people are really irate,” said John K. Smith, the retired chief administrator of Inyo County.

The influence of Los Angeles is a fact of life in the lightly populated wedge of California that lies east of the Sierra Nevada. The DWP land empire, amassed since the 1900s, includes not only open range, but a large chunk of Owens Valley homes and businesses. Los Angeles is one of the area’s biggest employers and also the source of livelihood for cattle ranchers, who lease DWP land for pasture.


Smith, himself a cattleman, has lived beside U.S. 395 on the north side of Independence since 1948 and says that, until recent years, cattails and willows grew and frogs croaked in the wetlands near his property.

The wetlands are now dry, the sagebrush dead, the soil a dark powder that blows in the afternoon winds that whip between the valley’s 14,000-foot-elevation walls, the Sierra Nevada and the White-Inyo Mountains. Dust also blows fine alkali silt off the bed of Owens Lake, dried up by the DWP in the 1940s. And the Owens River is just a trickling stream in places.

“This valley is substantially different than it was when I came here,” Smith recalled recently. “That river was navigable (for 50 miles) from the lake all the way up to Bishop and they just killed it.”

For the most part, say DWP engineers, the newly brown brush visible across the valley is due to California’s four-year drought. Only about 1,000 acres have been damaged by DWP pumps, according to an environmental impact report released Friday. But disbelieving old-timers say carnage from pumps is far more widespread.

“People here are so sad and outraged and defeated,” said Dorcas Birchim, an artist whose grandchildren are the sixth generation of her family to grow up in the Owens Valley. “We’re a conquered people.”

Due in large part to hard feelings about the DWP, one Inyo County supervisor lost his reelection bid in June and another was forced into a Nov. 6 runoff. The rest of the Board of Supervisors faces a November recall election, the first in Inyo County history.

Their main offense, according to critics, was to quietly negotiate a tentative deal with the DWP to settle an 18-year-old legal fight between Inyo County and Los Angeles. Inyo officials and the DWP say the deal would protect the Owens Valley by halting the ground water pumps if a panel of experts believe that vegetation is being harmed. As a bonus, the agreement would also restore water to the lower Owens River, once a prized fishing area, and Los Angeles would pay Inyo County $2 million a year.

Just as important, the deal’s architects say, it would avoid a courtroom battle that could end with Los Angeles losing its historic water rights in Owens Valley--or possibly with Inyo County losing any right to limit DWP’s water exports--or with a legal stalemate much like the one that exists today.

Critics say the new water agreement appears to do little to safeguard vegetation or protect private wells in the valley, which have dropped in recent years. A courtroom clash is inevitable if the deal isn’t changed, they say.

“We’re beyond being a desert--we’re rapidly becoming a dust bowl,” said Sam Dean, a Bishop plumbing contractor elected to the Board of Supervisors in June. “If we can’t protect the environment of this valley, we might as well go to court.”

Smith, who advised suing Los Angeles when he was the top officer of Inyo County, contends that sophisticated DWP engineers overwhelmed the county and its water director, Greg James, during more than two years of negotiations.

“The DWP are professionals. Our Board of Supervisors and Greg James are not. It’s just a fact of life,” said Smith, who retired from the county in 1982. “I think the county is selling out to the city of Los Angeles.”

James, a frequent target of DWP critics here, defends the agreement as the strongest protection possible for Owens Valley. The environmental impact report released Friday shows that no more than 58,000 acres are sensitive to water pumping and all will be monitored, he said. “I hope it will make the debate a little more factual and less emotional,” James said.

If people reject the agreement, Los Angeles pumps could run unchecked while the two sides battle in court, he said--”if they go back to court they’ll fight for 10 years.”

Thaddeus Taylor, a local stockbroker who serves as an Inyo County water commissioner, said residents should be satisfied even though the deal does not reverse the visual blight that many blame on DWP.

“We’ll never get even,” Taylor said. “I’m not on the take and I’m not a fool. I’m better educated on this than most people--and I believe in my heart of hearts that this is right.”

But he acknowledges that anything backed by the DWP is a hard sell in the Owens Valley. “The history is pretty awesome,” Taylor says. “L.A. has bullied people. They have used nefarious means. They’ve taken what was an old California city (Bishop) and very nearly destroyed it.”

The population around Bishop, about 12,000, is almost the same as in 1980. Inyo County had the slowest population growth--1.6%--of any California area in the 1980s except for tiny Alpine County, early census figures for 1990 show. Elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada, counties such as Calaveras and Amador grew by more than 50%.

“There’s the adage that something that doesn’t grow dies,” said John Robinson, past president of the Northern Inyo Economic Development Corp., which has frequent contact with developers who want to build here. “But it’s a very difficult situation because of the land constraints. There is no land.”

Despite the tourist dollars flowing into Bishop, the only significant development in recent years has been the opening of K Mart and Payless stores. K Mart waited 11 years for a spot in Bishop, City Manager Rick Pucci said, and other commercial ventures have inquired but found no land available.

Because so few people live here, jobs in the motels and cafes that serve tourists often go begging. But local sons and daughters often move away to find careers that pay enough to raise a family.

“We’re colonials,” said Bishop Mayor Jane Fisher, a longtime resident and author about valley history. “I think we could have reasonable growth without jeopardizing the small-town quality. Our young people can’t stay.”

Nonetheless, some people regard the DWP as the secret to the good life. Most DWP land and reservoirs are open to the public. With homes kept artificially in short supply, values have soared. Homes with flowing streams and duck ponds in West Bishop sell for $500,000 and the average in town is pushing $130,000, brokers say.

Some also credit the DWP with keeping Owens Valley relatively free of condos, highway billboards and fast-food emporiums.

“I like the relationship that exists,” said Liz Blackwell, a financial planner who ran unsuccessfully for county supervisor this year. “We really can contain our growth because DWP owns so much land.”

The top man in Owens Valley for the DWP, Duane Buchholz, says the vital interest of Los Angeles is simple. The city wants to preserve its water rights, which ensure Los Angeles a cheap supply of pure Sierra water and which are a source of income to the DWP. So the city plans to keep its range land vacant.

However, he said, 26 acres that the DWP owns within Bishop and 75 acres in other valley towns would be sold off if the legal settlement with Inyo County becomes final next year. The deal still must be approved by the Inyo County supervisors, Los Angeles officials and a state Court of Appeal. Los Angeles, which in 1933 owned 85% of all the town property in the valley, wants to gradually divest the homes and business lots that it owns, he said.

“We probably still own 20% of Main Street in Bishop,” Buchholz said. “But our board (the Los Angeles Water and Power Commission) wants us to get out of the commercial leasing business.”

That would relieve critics who believe that the DWP has used the clout of its leases to smother dissent.

“If you stand up to them they’ll use it against you--they’re bullies, they’re just bullies,” said Dan Miller, water chairman for the Paiute Indian Reservation in Independence, who has a disputed lease with DWP.

DWP officials deny using their power for political purposes, but suspicion soared recently when Weststar Cable, which provides TV service to Bishop, canceled the only local news program in Owens Valley.

The company said it was mostly a business decision. But others saw it as retribution against newscaster Bennett Kessler, who often reports critically on the DWP.

“The Board of Supervisors and DWP are very down on Bennett Kessler, but she does a good job,” said Smith, the former Inyo County administrator and an investor in the news program. “I have no proof (of DWP involvement) but that’s how things are handled here. DWP is extremely influential in the Owens Valley.”

Supporters say they have about 1,000 signatures from people who want the news show reinstated. Kessler has been a thorn in the DWP’s side since she teamed in 1975 with free-lance journalist John Heston, a controversial figure locally for, among other things, being something of a guru to troubled youths and--here in cattle country--being a vegetarian.

Since 1982 they have been partners in the news program aired over cable Channel 12 in Bishop and their Eastern Sierra News Service provides news tips and video footage to media in Los Angeles, including The Times.

“There is not one bit of media in this area--except us--that is independent of the DWP,” said Heston.


Owens Valley is 250 miles north of Los Angeles, but the city’s Department of Water andPower is the main landlord in the scenic mountain region.

Los Angeles has gradually acquired more than 300 square miles of Owens Valley to secure rights to water in the Owens River and below ground.

The land is mostly leased for cattle pasture and required to be open for public use. Since the DWP disallows growth, some of the 18,000 residents credit its hold on the land with preserving the wide-open vistas of Sierra peaks.

But a more controversial result is the squezzing of valley towns, which have almost no private land for development. Independence, the Inyo County seat, is fading into a dot on the map as residents leave and businesses close.

Bishop, the only city in the area, is holding its own. But though it is surrounded by open range, lack of land caused Bishop to miss the 1980’s economic boom in California’s mountains.