Monday, December 04, 2006

Lower Owens River Restoration

Hopefully we are seeing a positive closure of the tragic story of resource appropriation that, while helping create one of the most dynamic and vibrant urban/suburban centers in the world, did so at a horrible price for the folks in the Owens Valley.

Owens River to flow once more
By Laura Mecoy - Bee Los Angeles BureauPublished 12:00 am PST Monday, December 4, 2006

LOS ANGELES-"There it is. Take it."

With those simple words, engineer William Mulholland heralded the first flow of Owens Valley water into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The 233-mile conduit would give the booming metropolis its life and turn the valley into a parched desert.

Nearly a century later, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to offer his own observations when he pushes the button to return some of the Owens Valley's water to a river left dry by the city's water diversions.

The mayor's inauguration of the Lower Owens River Project on Wednesday won't be as auspicious an occasion as the 1913 opening of the aqueduct Mulholland designed. But it will be a milestone in the long-running feud between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley over the Eastern Sierra's most precious resource: its water.

"The Owens Valley has always been an Achilles' heel in our history," said Villaraigosa. "This is a way of beginning a new chapter in our relationship with the Owens Valley and in our commitment to the environment."

The history of acrimony and environmental damage dates back to the early 20th century when former Los Angeles Mayor Frank Eaton began buying up Owens Valley's land and water rights without telling the sellers of his desire to ship the water south.

The backroom deals and profiteering connected to the aqueduct's construction were later fictionalized in the movie "Chinatown."

The arrival of Owens Valley water made Los Angeles' explosive growth possible. But sending it south caused economic and environmental havoc in the valley.

The lower Owens River dried up and Owens Lake turned into a huge dust bowl that continues to bedevil residents with respiratory problems today.

Residents, who had relied on the water to sustain their agriculturally based economy, rebelled.
In 1924 and again in 1927, dissidents dynamited a portion of the aqueduct.

At the peak of "California's Little Civil War," as one magazine described it, a group of armed men took over a portion of the aqueduct and blocked the flow of water for four days.

Mulholland, the subject of much of the local ire, is quoted as saying he "half-regretted the demise of so many of the valley's orchard trees, because now there were no longer enough trees to hang all the troublemakers who live there."

In 1928, the violent opposition fizzled after its leaders were convicted of embezzlement. But the animosity lingered, and the environmental damage continued.

Owens Valley leaders turned to the courts to repair the damage, and Wednesday's ceremony marks a truce in one of those disputes that dates back to Los Angeles' 1970 increase in Owens Valley groundwater pumping.