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The Owens Irony : L.A. water grab may have saved what the valley values most

After years of foot-dragging and fruitless litigation, the city of Los Angeles in 1994 gave up some of its pristine eastern Sierra water supply to save Mono Lake. Then, in 1997, the city ended a 20-year legal struggle with Inyo County and agreed to limit ground-water pumping that was destroying vegetation in the Owens Valley. And now, Los Angeles has agreed to control toxic dust blowing from the dry bed of Owens Lake--dry because Los Angeles diverted the Owens River from the lake and sent its waters 233 miles south through the Los Angeles Aqueduct to city faucets.

The lake bed dust is the last major grievance resulting from Los Angeles’ infamous appropriation of the Owens River and its tributaries beginning in 1903. Throughout this saga, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has incurred the hostility of Owens Valley residents, some of whom dynamited the aqueduct in the 1920s and waged David-and-Goliath legal battles from the 1960s into the 1990s.

The Owens Lake dust probably caused the DWP the most grief. Settlement of the issue has brought a measure of peace to the valley not seen in decades--especially since the agency settled voluntarily rather than, as in the past, fighting to the last drop.

Even so, the Owens Valley remains a form of colonial outpost under the control of Los Angeles. The city owns virtually all the land in the 100-mile-long trough between the Sierra Nevada on the west and the White Mountains to the east. The four valley towns--Bishop, Big Pine, Independence and Lone Pine--are landlocked in the Water and Power barony of 350,000 acres in Inyo County and adjoining Mono County. The towns can grow only if Los Angeles gives up land. Up to now, the city has disposed only of some small parcels within the towns themselves. Most of the land is leased to ranchers as pasture, without any water rights.

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In 1997, the city agreed to sell up to 75 acres adjacent to the towns for public or private use. The Inyo County Board of Supervisors now is assessing the needs and potential uses for the land. Some residents talked about using the property to lure newcomers, perhaps Angelenos seeking to escape the frenzy of city life.

But Greg James, the Inyo County water director, says he senses no strong demand for growth. Most locals like the remote, sparsely populated region just as it is. Nor do Owens Valley’s 18,000 residents seem to resent the fact that Los Angeles owns so much land.

For decades, Los Angeles was vilified for turning verdant farms and orchards into desert by secretly buying up the land and draining it of its water. Today, the visitor often hears that the water barons inadvertently saved the valley from the overdevelopment and overcrowding that has plagued so much of California. This dichotomy led Abraham Hoffman to title his book on the Owens Valley water grab “Vision or Villainy.”

Call it accidental vision. Los Angeles took the water to fuel its own growth while the valley withered and stagnated. But in time, Owens Valley became a natural outdoor recreation wonderland and is likely to remain so. As Greg James said, “I suspect this will still be a very nice place 75 years from now.”

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