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Tasty Water Transforms Tiny Olancha

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Angeles entrepreneur Rod Bone wants to build a 20,000-square-foot brewery capable of producing a million cases of beer annually in this tiny, dust-blown hamlet in the Eastern Sierra high desert.

He has already received Inyo County approval for the brewery, which would sit alongside U.S. 395 and include a beer tasting room where patrons could sample his product, “Bone Dry Beer.”

So why would anyone want to make that kind of investment in this remote Owens Valley town of about 200 people, a few scattered roadside buildings, and a handful of houses and mobile homes holding back the sagebrush?

“The water,” Bone says. “It’s got the best water in the world. The better the water, the better the beer.”

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The water that courses down from the Sierra and collects underground here is exceptionally pure--and has attracted other beverage producers and water suppliers. A spokesman for the Crystal Geyser water company, which has been among the nation’s top sellers of bottled water, said the company spent two years tasting water from all over the West before building what became its largest plant here.

“Olancha had the best tasting water they could find,” the spokesman said.

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Anheuser-Busch bought a ranch near here in the 1980s with plans to export water from the property to Southern California by way of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. About the same time, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which already owned most of the land in the Owens Valley, bought hundreds of acres of ranchland with water rights here.

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“Olancha is the water capital of California,” Inyo County Supervisor Paul Payne boasts.

But county officials, residents and Crystal Geyser worry that new water projects might deplete the ground water or ruin existing wells by drawing in brackish water from beneath the nearby dry bed of Owens Lake. Crystal Geyser was so concerned about the Anheuser-Busch plans on the Cabin Bar Ranch next door to its plant that it bought another property south of town, hoping to interest the brewing company in extracting ground water from there instead, according to a county official.

This area’s water is especially pure because it consists of Sierra snowmelt that doesn’t travel far before collecting underground and rising to the surface, said Greg James, the Inyo County Water Department director.

“There’s nothing between the mountains and Owens Lake which would pollute the water,” he said. “It comes off the granite and doesn’t go through much alluvium, and it isn’t in the ground that long.”

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James said bottlers and water exporters also have been attracted here because the water supply has proved to be very reliable even during drought years, and because it is one of the few places in the valley where private land is still available. He added that the town’s proximity to the major markets and shipping facilities in Southern California is another attraction for bottlers.

Locals have been wary and sometimes frightened of the large beverage companies and would-be water exporters coming to do business here.

“When you have a small community of 200 and you have the DWP, Anheuser-Busch and Crystal Geyser on your hands, isn’t that a little frightening?” asked Melinda Salmonds, longtime resident and chairwoman of the community services district. “Everybody is on their own wells. People were scared to death that they could take so much water that we would have nothing.”

Bone’s microbrewery plan has been more popular with locals and county officials, except for some grumbling about the wisdom of locating a beer tasting room alongside a major highway. The brewery, which Bone said he hopes to have built and operating by next summer, would create some jobs in the sparsely populated southern end of the county while using a relatively small amount of water.

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But a new water exporting scheme known as Rancho Olancha proposed by one resident has raised anger here. The project, which would pump ground water from a lot in a residential area of the town into tanker trucks for export, has been fiercely opposed by neighbors and other locals, and has not been well received by county officials.

Residents said it would deplete their wells and cause a major disturbance in the neighborhood without contributing anything to the community.

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The era of water development in Olancha was ushered in by a local entrepreneur, Buck Elton, who saw the potential for the area’s water in the early 1980s. Elton started a bottled water company, but later sold his interest in two adjacent properties to Anheuser-Busch and Crystal Geyser.

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The town has not evolved much from its origins as an 1800s stagecoach stop for travelers en route from Southern California to points north. It is still best known as a travelers stop. The town’s Ranch House Cafe and another eatery are the first restaurants motorists reach after driving up U.S. 395 from Southern California through miles of southern Inyo desert.

Other than its spot on the highway and its good water, the town is known for being blasted by massive dust storms that the EPA has declared a serious health hazard. The dust rises from the 110-square-mile Owens Lake bed to the northeast, which was dried up early this century when Los Angeles diverted the Owens River into the Los Angeles Aqueduct.


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