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Justice Flows Into a Parched California Valley

September 16, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

INDEPENDENCE, Calif. — Mike Prather whooped as he ambled through the tumbleweed and salt grass for a look. There it was, bubbling and oozing like lava, as it inched down the valley floor.

The object of his search was nothing more or less than water. Water, which has not flowed in the Owens River for 93 years, is now, almost miraculously, there again.

“This is what I expected,” Prather, a 60-year-old environmentalist, said as he and his 26-year-old daughter, a graduate student in wildlife management, watched the water seeping into the sand. “It’s not a tsunami; it’s more like the tide coming in. I am going to remember this moment for the rest of my life.”

Water was returned to the Owens River on Dec. 6, when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Inyo County Supervisor Susan Cash symbolically concluded the most celebrated water war in American history.

Almost a century after Los Angeles diverted the Owens River into the city’s aqueduct, Villaraigosa and Cash opened a gate and allowed some of that water to return to the river, starting a reclamation effort (62 riparian miles, 30 air miles) rivaled only by the Kissimmee River Restoration Project in the Florida Everglades.

Traveling less than one mile a day, the flow by a recent Friday had reached a spot on the old riverbed just a few miles north of Independence, where Prather found it.

“By restoring the lower Owens River, the city of Los Angeles will do more than right an historic wrong,” Villaraigosa said at a ceremony marking the beginning of the project. “In a deeper sense, we will affirm a literal truth: that when it comes to protecting our environment, it is time for all of us to change course.”

The story of the Owens River Valley and Los Angeles is one of the great narratives of the West, chronicled in the 1974 Hollywood classic “Chinatown.” Starting in 1904, agents for the city of Los Angeles masquerading as businessmen and ranchers snapped up hundreds of thousands of acres in the valley, 230 miles north of the city.

Los Angeles built an aqueduct and in 1913 diverted the Owens River, which is fed by the snowpack on the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west, to slake its growing thirst. Another boom in the 1960s prompted the city to pump out the valley’s ground water; a second aqueduct was completed in 1970. In total, the aqueducts deliver more than 430 million gallons a day to the city — 70 percent of its water needs.

“Los Angeles employed chicanery, subterfuge, spies, bribery, a campaign of divide-and-conquer and a strategy of lies to get the water out,” wrote the late Marc Reisner in his 1986 book, “Cadillac Desert.” “In the end, it milked the valley bone-dry.”

Springs that annually transformed the valley into a rich marshland for migrating birds, bobcats, deer, elk and mountain lions dried up. Salt grass, cottonwoods and willows died off; tumbleweed and salt cedar moved in.

But the fact that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) owned all the land meant that the valley was saved from the city’s sprawl. No strip malls or gated communities mar the landscape. To this day, Inyo County’s 18,000 residents live on 1.7 percent of the land.

via Justice Flows Into a Parched California Valley.

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