In a move that could put $25 million in the pockets of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and ensure permanent protection of its vast Owens Valley holdings, the utility is entering negotiations to sell development rights for more than 300,000 acres along the edge of the Eastern Sierra Nevada.
The DWP has owned the land, running south along U.S. 395 in a long, irregular band from Mono Lake to the tiny community of Olancha, since the early years of L.A.'s bitter water wars.
The valley functions as both L.A.'s well and its outback playground, an empty reminder of 19th century California. The towns are small and few, the landscape expansive.
Under the easement proposal, hatched by a conservation group and DWP's powerful general manager, the department would retain perpetual water rights but give up a chance to ever develop the high desert and mountain land.
If approved, the deal would be another feather in the cap of DWP General Manager S. David Freeman, who has guided the public utility into an enviable spot during California's energy crisis.
"I think this could be the most important accomplishment in all the time I've been general manager," Freeman said. "For almost 100 years we have been keeping this land pristine. We have no reason to do otherwise. And then the Wildlands Conservancy offers us $25 million to keep doing what we're doing."
Half of that money would come from private donations raised by the conservancy group and half would come from the state Wildlife Conservation Board, which will be a party to the negotiations. Despite DWP's assurances, environmentalists said the power crisis has upset old assumptions about the stability of big utilities.
"It is a very significant opportunity in the state," said Al Wright, the board's executive director. "Owens Valley is what it is today because it hasn't been developed. A conservation easement would assure there will never be development."
The proposal comes at a time when deregulated private utilities that once seemed rock solid are quivering on the verge of collapse, threatening not only electricity supplies but the wilderness lands the companies own as part of their hydropower systems.
In his rescue talks with Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, Gov. Gray Davis has suggested the two utilities grant the state conservation easements on more than 150,000 acres of their watershed land.
DWP, as a public utility with its own power supply, has escaped the plight of PG&E; and Edison. Indeed, the department is raking in millions by selling excess electricity to the power-hungry rest of the state.
Freeman said there has been no thought of selling any of the DWP's Eastern Sierra lands, which send water and electricity more than 200 miles south to the spigots and light switches of Los Angeles.
But the power crisis and the proposed development of property owned by smaller utilities in Southern California has undermined the long-held belief that such lands will remain untouched.
"We've learned . . . it was presumptuous to assume land owned by utility and water agencies would be preserved forever," said David Myers, executive director of the Yucaipa-based Wildlands Conservancy.
The group approached the DWP about conservation easements late last year. It has already raised $8.35 million for the deal, which is outlined in a memorandum of intent that will be presented to the DWP board next week.
The agreement calls for a 60-day nonbinding negotiation period involving the DWP, the conservancy and the state conservation board.
According to the memo, the easements would include several provisions:
* Development would be restricted unless associated with DWP water projects.
* Public access would be granted for recreation, including hiking, fishing, hunting, horseback riding and camping.
* Some acreage around Owens Valley communities would remain free of the easements to allow for limited growth.
* Tax payments to Inyo and Mono counties would continue.
Myers said the land would remain under DWP control, while the easements would be overseen by the state and a few conservation groups.
The Owens Valley has had a long and tortured relationship with the department, which surreptitiously bought up the region's land and water rights at the turn of the last century, driving out ranchers and earning the damnation of locals. Attitudes have mellowed over the years, as the DWP haters died and succeeding generations have come to appreciate that DWP ownership has kept Southern California's sprawl at bay.
The easement proposal took Owens Valley officials by surprise when they learned of it Wednesday, but their initial reactions were generally favorable.
"I think this could have incredible benefits," said Inyo County Supervisor Julie Bear. "We'll be frozen in time in the best of ways. To allow the Eastern Sierra to remain in its pristine state in perpetuity is almost unimaginable."
If questions that residents are likely to raise--such as effects on grazing and tax revenue--are answered satisfactorily, Bear said, "I think the majority of folks will see this as a positive move."
Rick Pucci, city administrator of Bishop, the valley's biggest town, expressed two potential concerns--that the communities have some room to grow and that public access to the DWP property continue.
"My impression is that everybody who lives up here has moved up here [because] they sort of like how it is now. But I think there is a general recognition there has to be some growth," he said.
Allan Pietrasanta, a Bishop business owner and board member of the Sierra Business Council, applauded the easement proposal.
"It will only be of economic benefit to the people and business folks of this valley," he said. "What [it would do] is preserve our most valuable product, the beauty of the area. There is more money to be made in enjoying the beauty of the area than development."