The Public Eye

Outrage in Owens Valley a century after L.A. began taking its water

By now, the story seems old. A young city, thirsty for water, deploys wealth, cunning and power to divert a river from a distant valley, safeguarding its future at the expense of others.

A century ago, Los Angeles did just that in the Owens Valley, a 75-mile-long, U-shaped cul-de-sac on the east side of the snow-capped Sierra, a place so scenic some called it an American Switzerland.

What happened next – the withering of the valley, the rise of the nation’s second-largest metropolis – has been recounted so often it is a part of western lore, a parable of the promise and peril of water development.

But 100 years after the Owens River was diverted to L.A., the story is not over. Like a stone dropped into a pond, the city’s action set in motion a widening circle of impacts that continue to shape conflicts and challenges.

Water, of course, is at the heart of it. But no longer is the Owens River the focal point. Now much of the controversy is about groundwater pumping that long ago dried up seeps and springs and is blamed now for harming many of the valley’s lush, ecologically important meadows.

“Year after year, we watch the grasses die back. We watch the shrubs move in. We watch the weeds come in,” said Sally Manning, environmental director of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe whose ancestors carved the first irrigation ditches in the valley centuries ago. “Years go by and nothing gets done.”

As the land dries out, the dust blows, so intensely at times that it halts traffic on U.S. Highway 395 and triggers health advisories in communities across the valley.

This fall, April Zrelak drove through one giant dust storm from her home in Independence, the Inyo County seat (population 669) in the middle of the valley, to Big Pine, 26 miles north.

“There was a wall of dirt. You could not see the mountains,” said Zrelak, who tracks air quality issues for another valley tribe, the Paiute-Shoshone. “It’s a road hazard. It’s a health hazard. And it’s erosion. It’s eroding the soil so it’s going to be even harder for plants to take hold.”

It’s not just the valley’s air and land that are hurting. Residents say the area’s historical charm is also in decline, as frontier-era buildings that Los Angeles bought in the early 20th century, along with the land and water rights, slide into disrepair and are torn down. “They are chipping away at our historical district,” said Independence resident Lynn Johnson. “Our cultural landscape is being turned back into this desert.”

Officials with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the city’s municipal utility and the agency that oversees Owens Valley operations, defend their stewardship. They say old structures are costly to maintain and that drought and other factors are often to blame for environmental woes.

“We’re very protective of the valley,” said Martin Adams, the utility’s director of water operations. “Some will imply anything we do is the source of all the problems. There are many more factors, weather probably being the biggest one.”

Utility officials also point to a recent track record of environmental gains. Seven years ago, DWP returned water to the lower Owens River, bringing a Lazarus-like, 62-mile-long stream corridor back to life. Since 2001, it has spent $1.2 billion to control dust across 42 square miles of dried-up Owens Lake. And it diverts significantly less water out of the valley than a generation ago.

“The city is like everyone else that is trying to be responsible environmentally,” said DWP spokesman Chris Plakos. “Things have changed significantly over the past two, three decades.”

But environmentalists say Los Angeles had to be pushed to make those changes through years of legal and regulatory conflict. “It’s not voluntary,” said Daniel Pritchett, a board member of the Owens Valley Committee, an environmental nonprofit based in Bishop. “It’s only because they’ve been forced, kicking and screaming, by the courts.”

Restoring water to the lower Owens River took 10 years, two environmental lawsuits and a court order fining DWP $5,000 a day for missing deadlines. In all, penalties came to more than $3 million.

At Owens Lake, DWP has fought the local air quality district with five lawsuits and filed four administrative appeals with the California Air Resources Board in disputes over air quality and fees. It also has ordered air pollution monitoring stations removed from land it controls, creating blind spots where dust levels that sometimes exceed the federal EPA health standard no longer can be measured.

“It’s crazy,” said Ted Schade, director of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District in Bishop. “They’re not going to make the problem go away by making the monitors go away.”

The battle over groundwater, which began with an Inyo County lawsuit in 1972, is even more divisive. After four decades, it is reaching a pivotal moment as the county tries to prove in legal proceedings that pumping has harmed one especially parched part of the valley, with the ultimate aim of mitigating the damage.

“It takes a lot of patience,” said Bob Harrington, director of the Inyo County Water Department. “L.A.’s got a lot of resources to pursue their interests, to do whatever they need to do to keep the water going to L.A. None of these disputes were resolved overnight.”

Gift from the mountains

Too little water was not something early settlers worried about. Their memories, recorded in books and oral histories, describe the Owens Valley at the turn of the 20th century as an agricultural Eden sustained by clear, cold Sierra snowmelt.

L.A. savored that runoff, too, and acquired it amid much controversy by using bond money and other public funds to buy valley farms and ranches – and their water rights – and then build an aqueduct to L.A.

Nothing like it had been attempted in the West. More than 230 miles long, the aqueduct took thousands of workers five years to finish. When water finally tumbled down a sluiceway into the San Fernando Valley on Nov. 5, 1913, it was a moment for DWP superintendent William Mulholland and a crowd of onlookers to celebrate. “There it is. Take it,” he said.

But in Owens Valley, anger began to brew. By the 1920s, as Los Angeles bought more land, passion ran so high some residents dynamited the aqueduct. The Inyo Register and the Owens Valley Herald summed up the sentiment in a 1925 headline: “Greed of City Ruins the Owens Valley.”

By the 1930s, the struggle was over. The Department of Water and Power, which had acquired nearly all the farmland and most town properties, won. Since then, the region has turned increasingly to tourism for survival, serving as a gateway to the High Sierra and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.

But with its wide-open spaces and historic small towns, the region also retains an Old West ambiance. For some, that uncluttered, little-changed landscape, so unlike other parts of California, is a positive – and under-appreciated – benefit of DWP’s vast holdings.

“The only thing worse than having DWP in the valley would be not having them here,” said Phil Pister, a retired state fisheries biologist who has lived in the valley for more than half a century.

“Where else in California do you find an area like this that has not been built on or destroyed ecologically?” Pister said. “Overall, DWP has been a pretty good steward of their lands. They really have.”

But many others say that attitude overlooks the negative impacts of DWP’s legacy, including the desiccation of valley vegetation from groundwater pumping, which ramped up in the 1970s to help fill a second aqueduct.

“There are a lot of us who feel the city of Los Angeles regards Inyo County as a resource colony to be exploited to whatever means they see fit,” said Dave Wagner, a retired geologist in Independence. “They are taking all the water they possibly can. Water tables are dropping precipitously. Desertification is increasing.”

Like the Owens River, groundwater is the gift of mountain snowmelt that surges out of the high country each spring and gathers itself under the valley floor. In one of the driest climates in America – an average of just 5 inches of rain falls a year in the valley, less than Phoenix – that water works miracles.

It slakes the thirst of cottonwoods and willows, waters native grasses and shrubs and fills coffee cups and cattle tanks across the valley. But with billions of gallons of valley groundwater now going to L.A. each year, that subterranean magic is in danger.

Springs that bubbled clear and cold from the valley floor dried up first in the 1970s. As shallow water tables dropped, trees began to die. Today, large swaths of ecologically unique native grasses and flowers that rely on water tables no more than 7 to 8 feet deep are struggling, too.

Known as alkalai meadows, such grassy areas are valuable to ranchers who lease land from DWP. They also are home to sensitive species found nowhere else in California, such as the Owens Valley vole, Inyo County star-tulip and Owens Valley checkerbloom, a state endangered species.

In the 1980s, one lush spot could be found east of U.S. Highway 395 near Goodale Creek where Manning, then a plant ecologist with Inyo County, studied meadow conditions. But when she visited the area recently, Manning found mostly desert.

Where wildflowers once grew, she walked through a tangle of tumbleweed and saltbush. Powdery gray dust rose from her footsteps. In places, wind had scoured soil out from under clumps of dry grass, leaving them stranded atop pedestals of dirt and roots.

“We are being dewatered to a huge extent,” said Manning. “It’s astonishing how much change there has been.”

Contention and gridlock

Adams, director of water operations at DWP, acknowledged some meadow areas have grown drier. But he put most of the blame on natural causes, including a major drought gripping the West.

“Part of it is the fact that we had one of our lowest water years ever on record,” Adams said. “Things are really depressed over the whole West. It’s hard to believe the Owens Valley would be exempt from those natural impacts.”

“You have wet periods and dry periods and brush fires. And in the future we’ll have climate change,” Adams said. “When you super-impose those conditions on L.A.’s activities, one of the challenges is always to determine what’s due to what L.A. is taking and what’s due to natural causes.”

Adams also said that DWP data show that Owens Valley water tables have not dropped that much over the past two decades. “Anywhere you pump, you may have a little more immediate drawdown around the well,” he said. “But overall, groundwater levels are not depressed.”

L.A. obtains 25 percent to 30 percent of its water from the eastern Sierra, down significantly from recent decades. Its valley groundwater pumping has dropped, too, from 150,000 to 200,000 acre-feet a year in the late 1980s to 91,600 acre-feet in 2012. But that’s still more than what a 1998 U.S. Geological Survey study suggested could be pumped without lowering water tables and harming vegetation.

“Ninety-one thousand is higher than we would like to see, especially after two desperately dry years,” said Mike Prather, chair of the Inyo County Water Commission.

Groundwater is overseen by a 1991 agreement with Inyo County in which DWP said it would manage pumping in ways that do not dry up meadows. But critics say the agreement has flaws, including a conflict resolution process that can drag on for years.

“Too often we see this gridlock condition,” said Pritchett, the Owens Valley Committee board member. “They have a hard time even getting their dispute resolution process to work because they can’t agree on the wording of their disputes.”

Another point of contention is the use of soil moisture levels to determine when wells must be shut off. As Harrington, the county water director, wrote in a 2005 article in the Owens Valley Monitor: “By the time soil moisture is depleted, even if pumping stops, the water table may not recover in time to prevent vegetation harm.”

Nonetheless, he believes the agreement has helped the valley by keeping some farmland in irrigation and reducing pumping to an average of 73,000 acre-feet a year over the past two decades.

“There are problem areas where we think L.A.’s water management has had negative effects,” he said. “There are areas in the valley that are doing pretty well, where we think the water agreement has had tremendous benefits, both for native vegetation and irrigated lands.”

One problem area is an alkali meadow north of Independence near Black Rock Springs Road where Manning has documented the decline of native grasses and wildflowers and low water table conditions for more than two decades.

Not long ago, she returned to the meadow with a 1988 photo of the area in her hands. “You don’t have to believe me but this is what it used to look like,” she said, kneeling down and holding the photo in her hands. It showed a lush, green, shaggy carpet of native grasses that rely on groundwater for survival, along with some shrubs.

The landscape in front of her now was dry, dusty and dominated by desert shrubs that can survive on scant precipitation. “This is what the agreement was supposed to avoid,” Manning said. “There was a line in the sand that there would be no further change. But that line has been crossed many times by DWP.”

She resigned in frustration in 2008. “It was just heartbreaking to monitor the death of this meadow and present the data to the decision-makers and have them just shrug,” said Manning. “It got to the point where it was hopeless.”

The county is now trying to hold DWP accountable for the transformation – so far, unsuccessfully. In arbitration, the agency claimed Inyo County’s monitoring process was flawed, making it impossible to determine whether change had occurred. This fall, arbitrators brought in by the two sides disagreed with that assessment. But the extent of the damage, and the cause, remain in dispute.

Meanwhile, pumping continues nearby at two wells that are exempt from regulation because they supply water to a state fish hatchery before it goes to L.A. – a situation that draws the ire of critics.

“Groundwater pumping tied to mitigation activities is not right,” said Alan Bacock, water program coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe.

Dust from a moonscape

Thirty miles south, a larger conflict over air quality also has dragged on for years.

This one is at Owens Lake, which dried up in the mid-1920s, forming a salty-white moonscape that has become the largest man-made source of hazardous airborne dust in America.

Owens Lake dust is dangerous because its particles are so tiny, they are easily inhaled and can increase the risk of respiratory and cardiac problems. The federal health standard for such diminutive dust – know as “PM10,” for particulate matter 10 microns or less in diameter – is 150 micrograms per cubic meter.

PM10 levels at Owens Lake often dwarf that. In 2011, one dust storm was measured at 13,380 micrograms – 89 times the EPA standard. In 2001, another reached 20,754 micrograms – 138 times the federal standard.

“It has a funny taste to it. It burns your eyes. It makes me cough,” said Janice Aten, a member of the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe in nearby Lone Pine who has lived in Owens Valley for years.

To control that dust, DWP now spreads more than 30 billion gallons of water a year – enough to fill the Rose Bowl every day – across the lake floor. It also has re-vegetated large areas, creating habitat for eared grebes, snowy plovers and other migratory birds.

It is the largest dust control project in U.S. history, covering 42 square miles at a cost of $1.2 billion. And it has made a difference: Overall, dust levels have dropped about 90 percent to 1,000 to 1,500 micrograms per cubic meter since the early 2000s.

“We’ve seen a dramatic improvement,” said Schade, director of the Great Basin Unified air district. “But we are still 10 times over the standard.”

The district and DWP are quarreling now over an additional 3.6 square miles where Schade says more dust control measures are needed to bring pollution levels into compliance with federal law. DWP contends it’s being asked to control dust it didn’t cause and has fought back with state and federal lawsuits and administrative appeals. In 2012, it ordered Great Basin to remove three air quality monitors from land owned by Los Angeles, terminating the agreement that gave the air district access.

“We felt very strongly the data collected was being used incorrectly,” said Adams, the DWP director. “We are in a situation where we are controlling dust that’s been naturally occurring for all of history and not due to any activity by Los Angeles.”

Schade disagreed. “Their water gathering activities are what caused this problem,” he said. “We’re asking them to clean up after themselves. It’s the law.”

The district is trying to install new monitors on nearby state and federal land, so far without success. At one spot, a concrete pad for a monitoring station sits on state-owned land just 110 meters from the old DWP site. But persuading DWP to supply power to the new site has been difficult.

“Unfortunately, the air polluter is also the power provider,” said Schade. “We can’t get DWP to get off the dime and string the wires. They could do it tomorrow.”

As the fine lake dust recedes, concern is growing about the huge clouds of wind-borne soil and grit that billow off once-green alkali meadows and farm fields.

“They need water,” Schade said. “You can bring the vegetation back and bring the dust down, or you can put it in swimming pools down in Southern California.”

A hole in history

DWP is stirring up a different kind of conflict in Independence, the Inyo county seat, where residents say the community’s historic charm is in danger.

Independence itself is tiny, just a few blocks long and wide. There is no stoplight, no grocery store, no Starbucks. And the scenery – snow-capped vistas, wide-open spaces – is stunning.

But it’s the history that catches a visitor’s eye: the stately 1922 Inyo County Courthouse; the Pines Cafe, a community gathering spot for decades; the “Commander’s House,” a 19th-century Victorian built to establish a military presence in the region.

Independence is a town “trapped in time where little of the built environment has changed since the 1920s and early 1930s,” a 2000 Caltrans road-widening survey reported.

“In the present age of fast food, traffic congestion, ‘old town’ pretensions and ‘cyber-adnauseam,’ the Independence (downtown) district is an increasingly rare representation of small-town Americana ” the Caltrans survey said.

But that history is fading. The Pines Cafe is boarded up. The Commander’s House and other structures are in need of repair. And some have been torn down.

“We have trouble getting tourists to stop. They just drive on through,” said Wagner, the retired geologist. “We need a reason to have them stop. A viable historical district would go a long way towards doing that.”

For decades, L.A. owned much of Independence, which is home to a major DWP work center. In recent decades, it has sold many homes but retained other old structures and property along U.S. 395, including a century-old barbershop in poor condition that many residents wanted protected.

Nancy Masters, president of the Independence Civic Club, even submitted a plan to restore the building in 2010.

“We thought it was eminently do-able,” said Masters. “This was potentially one of the oldest buildings in town. DWP’s response was silence. They didn’t get back to us.”

Instead, DWP tore the building down while the town slept in April 2012, outraging many residents. Adams, though, defended the action.

“I never heard any real legitimate offers that would make that property viable,” he said. “We couldn’t just let it sit there until it fell down on its own.” The work was done at night, he added, to avoid traffic problems. “We weren’t trying to be sneaky,” he said.

Adams also said the utility is exploring ways to sell old buildings because maintaining them is costly. “We are looking for creative ways to move on these properties,” he said. “We know that tearing them down is not a good idea.”

With the old barbershop gone, Independence now has one more vacant lot – one more hole in a history that Masters, the Inyo County librarian, has struggled to safeguard. She calls herself a “guerrilla archivist” and oversees a small room in the county courthouse filled with books, newspaper clippings and historical material about Inyo County and Owens Valley.

“It’s not just our history,” she said. “A lot of our history has created history elsewhere. It set the tone for water battles throughout the Western United States.

“The built environment is a visible archive of our history. It tells a story. And when that has been dismantled, nothing is left to continue that thread into the future.”