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Death of ‘Chinatown’

Once upon a time, you could gaze toward Mono Lake from this old mountain town and watch the lake shrink. A pathetic scene. Los Angeles was sucking Mono dry, sending the water south for our lawns and pools. Each year the lake grew a little smaller than the year before.

No more. Mono is growing again, its surface level rising like a wet phoenix. Los Angeles’ water take has been cut by two-thirds, and the city is reduced to negotiating over how much it will pay to restore the damage it did here.

A few miles south, in Inyo County, the Owens River has been transformed into a dry gulch, also courtesy of Los Angeles. Once the river fed a huge lake, Owens Lake, that sported steamships. Now the lake is gone, made into a great, briny basin of salt and minerals.

But soon, probably within a few years, water will flow again in the Owens River. Los Angeles will put the water back and pay, once again, for the damage it did. And eventually, the city will be forced to made amends at Owens Lake.

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What we are seeing here in the eastern Sierra is a rollback of historic proportions. From Lee Vining to Olancha, the valleys and rivers and towns of this region once were operated as a colony of Los Angeles. Indeed, with 302,000 acres under its control, Los Angeles owned the eastern Sierra both literally and figuratively.

Now the colonizer is everywhere in retreat. “Chinatown” is dead.

You can sense the size of the defeat in the amount of water being allowed to remain in the eastern Sierra. In addition to the two-thirds cut at Mono, the city’s take from Inyo County has been reduced 20% to 25%. Depending on the size of programs forced on the city at Owens River and Owens Lake, that figure could increase to 40% to 45%.

I keep using the word “forced” because that is what has happened here. Los Angeles and its Department of Water and Power did not volunteer to surrender. Their power was broken slowly, piece by piece, year after year.

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“They got whipped bad, all up and down the eastern Sierra,” says former state Assemblyman Richard Katz, who spent a decade trying to settle the wars between L.A. and its colony. “It’s amazing, really. Maybe it was retribution for all the sins they committed there.”

More amazing yet is the ragtag set of antagonists that brought down the giant. In the north, an environmental group known as the Mono Lake Committee sprang up in the 1970s to try to forestall the inevitable death of the lake.

Over the next 20 years, a furious Department of Water and Power spent an estimated $12 million in legal fees to squash the committee like a bug. But it didn’t squash. Now the Mono Lake Committee controls more of Mono’s fate than does the DWP.

A similar story took place in Inyo. The tiny county with a population roughly equal to a Marina del Rey high-rise decided it would stop Los Angeles’ plans to double the amount of water it took from wells in the Owens Valley.

Given that Los Angeles owns the valley outright because of its notorious undercover land-buying spree in the early 1900s, Inyo’s struggle seemed quixotic at best. As with Mono, the city spent tens of millions of dollars in legal fees trying to overwhelm the county district attorney.

Today, the county district attorney is still standing while the DWP’s lawyers are on the mat and breathing heavily. The DWP never came close to doubling its take and now works feverishly merely to protect what it once had.

A momentous, historic retreat. And the most intriguing question of all is a simple one: What happened? How did the city lose so badly, given that it had all the advantages of great wealth, ownership and statewide political influence?

It appears that the DWP was more a victim of itself than of its enemies. As Katz says, the DWP pursued a doomed strategy from the start.

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“It was deny, deny, deny, stall, stall, stall. A stupid strategy really, because the problems were real and obviously had to be dealt with. In the end, the DWP lost control because they refused to face the problems.”

Buck Gibbons, Inyo district attorney, says the DWP could have struck a favorable deal with Inyo in the early years of the fight if it had been willing to deal forthrightly with the county. “But they gave us no evidence of acting in good faith. So we went to court, and the courts agreed with us.”

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One member of the Mono Lake Committee described the group’s experience as one of “slowly prying the cold, dead fingers of the DWP off the eastern Sierra.”

And once the fingers were pried, the nightmarish water shortages predicted for L.A. never materialized. A combination of water conservation and recycling has more than made up for the water lost.

So you could argue that the struggle had no real losers. Except this war continued for 20 years, costing untold millions, sapping the energies of both camps, consuming the entire careers of men and women.

Now, the almost deregulated DWP will face a last test in the eastern Sierra. After 14 years of study, the Inyo air quality board has asked the DWP to join in an effort to curtail the huge dust storms that blow off the dried salt flats of Owens Lake.

And what is the department’s response? Jim Wickser, head of water operations for DWP, recently characterized the problems at Owens Lake as “very minor” and said the agency would do nothing until more studies had been completed.

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In other words: delay, delay, delay. Stall, stall, stall.


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