Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn called Tuesday for the creation of a land conservancy that would ban any future development on 500 square miles of the Owens River Valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada -- the same land the city secretly acquired a century ago in order to obtain the water rights.
Under the mayor’s proposal to “preserve 320,000 acres of natural beauty in the Owens Valley,” the city would retain the water rights but establish a conservation easement that would ensure that the area remained in a natural state, probably open to the same general uses -- fishing, hunting, hiking and grazing by local ranchers -- that are currently permitted.
It is the first time a Los Angeles mayor has endorsed such a plan, long advocated by environmentalists, to preserve the Owens Valley.
The mayor’s proposal, however, drew mixed responses from Owens Valley residents and ranchers, some of whom have come to regard the city and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power as overbearing landlords.
A conservation easement would be welcomed by some who are concerned that unchecked growth, already transforming the nearby Mammoth Lakes area, could destroy the valley’s rural character.
However, the mayor’s proposal was greeted by others as one more effort by Los Angeles to impose its will on land that it stole in the first place.
Sipping a cold beer at Jake’s Saloon in Lone Pine, valley resident Chuck Berling, said: “If the state gets involved, they’ll put in so many rules and regulations that average working folks won’t have any fun at all. They reach too far and push too hard on folks.”
Cattle rancher John Lacey, who was born in the Owens Valley and leases more than 40,000 acres of land from the DWP, was himself a bit conflicted over the idea.
“There’s times I question whether we need a conservation easement and other times when I think, under certain circumstances, it could be beneficial,” he said. “But perpetuity is something I won’t live long enough to see. So folks need to be very, very careful in putting such a thing together.”
Hahn’s proposal appeared to reverse a position he took just two weeks ago opposing a proposed easement. Local conservationists continued to advocate the idea, saying it would help Hahn’s reelection campaign.
In a written statement Tuesday, Hahn said details of the proposal would take time to work out, adding, “Of course, such a monumental accomplishment will require a lot of flexibility and creativity. I am personally committed to this goal. It’s worth it.”
Hahn’s proposal is not the only one being discussed as a means of forestalling development along one of the state’s most scenic corridors -- the 110-mile-long Owens Valley that is flanked by the snow-capped peaks of the High Sierra on the west and the lower and dryer White Mountains on the east. The protected acreage would include blue-ribbon trout streams, stark rock formations, marshlands and desert plains.
The valley, which runs along U.S. 395 from just south of Lone Pine almost to Mammoth Lakes, has been the focal point of a historic feud that began when city officials quietly started buying up ranchland and accompanying water rights 100 years ago, then built an aqueduct that sent Owens Valley water cascading 200 miles south to Los Angeles.
Violence erupted in the valley, and the aqueduct was dynamited repeatedly after increased pumping exacerbated a drought during the 1920s that laid waste to local farms and businesses while providing a major source of drinking water for a rapidly growing Los Angeles.
Although the proposal being drafted by city staffers appeared to contradict Hahn’s earlier position, Deputy Mayor Doane Liu said Tuesday that the mayor’s original stance was “not in opposition to the concept at all.”
Instead, Liu said, Hahn was maintaining only that members of the City Council could not legally negotiate the use of Owens Valley land.
“The mayor is excited about this possibility and committed to moving forward on his vision,” Liu said. “But he wants to be respectful of all the stakeholders, including valley residents and ranchers.”
Details of the plan remained unclear, but one approach under discussion would have the L.A. Department of Water and Power give up its rights forever to develop more than 326,000 acres in the valley. In return, the city would get $35 million from state bond funds for the conservation easement and retain full control of its water rights.
Under that approach, areas immediately surrounding the Owens Valley communities of Bishop, Big Pine, Independence and Lone Pine would be unencumbered by the conservation easement, allowing for growth.
“We still have to do a lot of research,” Liu said. “For example, we have charter restrictions and city regulations that are over 100 years old to deal with. But the mayor is doing what it takes to have his vision realized.”
Liu added that “it would be a goal of mine to get something accomplished by the end of the year -- or at least to have made substantial progress.”
Frank Salas, acting general manager of the DWP, said that timeline sounded “somewhat ambitious.” He added, however, that “environmentalists and the DWP are in agreement that Owens Valley should be preserved and maintained in its current condition for future generations. We think it bears merit, and will be working with the mayor’s office on this. Of course, the devil is in the details.”
On the other hand, DWP Commission Chairman Dominick Rubalcava argued that there was no need for a conservation easement, saying that his agency had maintained the lands in a pristine fashion for nearly a century and had a strong interest in keeping the watershed clean.
On Tuesday, Rubalcava grumbled, “Sounds like I’m outnumbered.”
David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, which for years has promoted the creation of a conservation easement, said: “I can’t imagine a single action the city of Los Angeles could make today that would be more memorable to future generations.
“However it happens,” Myers said, “the operative word here is ‘perpetuity,’ both for the land and recreational access to 50 miles of lake frontage, 565 miles of streams and 320,000 acres of paradise.”
Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, agreed.
“The way the city acquired that valley’s land was a travesty,” Edmiston said. “Now, all that karma will be reversed. What started out as a selfish act on the part of Los Angeles to take away Owens Valley’s water rights will be transformed into magnificent scenery and recreational opportunities, and not just another San Fernando Valley.”
It is not the first time that the DWP has entered into talks to conserve the huge parcel in the Eastern Sierra.
In 2001, former DWP General Manager David Freeman touted a plan in which the agency would give up development control in return for $25 million from the Wildlands Conservancy and the state Wildlife Conservation Board.
That plan, however, ran into resistance from then-Mayor Richard Riordan, who was skeptical of the benefits to the city and angry that Freeman had not consulted with him. It also fell flat among Owens Valley residents, whose general response could have been summed up by the phrase: “Beware of Los Angelenos bearing gifts.”
Two weeks ago, City Councilmen Tony Cardenas and Alex Padilla revived the idea in a letter to the head of the California Resources Agency. However, Mayor Hahn, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and Rubalcava objected.
Environmentalists and state resources officials kept the plan alive.
At about the same time, Al Wright, executive director of the state Wildlife Conservation Board, seeking to persuade a dozen high-profile Owens Valley residents and ranchers, pitched the idea of having the state purchase and then dissolve the property development rights.
“There’s a lot of caution about the idea,” Wright said in an interview. “But I think it has great potential. I think it’s doable.”