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Water Wars! The Battle for Owens Valley 
Water Wars! The Battle for Owens Valley
 
1905. A thirsty Los Angeles needed water to grow and DWP Chief Engineer William Mulholland hatched an extraordinary plan: build an aqueduct to bring Inyo County’s Owens River to L.A., an unparalleled engineering feat. Millions of gallons of pristine snow melt from the peaks of the Eastern Sierras cascaded down Mulholland’s 223-mile aqueduct turning the arid, empty San Fernando Valley into a thriving metropolis and triggering a bitter water war still being fought today.
 
Angry Owens Valley residents, furious over “stolen” water, dynamited the aqueduct for decades. Many are still chafing over the tight-fisted control the DWP exerts over Owens Valley real estate.
 
The City of Los Angeles owns nearly 400 square miles of the best Owens Valley land, a huge swath of property about the size of L.A. itself. The DWP has kept a tight lid on growth and economic development to protect its water sources.
 
New home construction is practically non-existent. Opportunities for young people are few. Inyo County Register reporter John Klusmire calls it “Mayberry,” because nothing changes, including the population: just under 18,000 residents.
 
There is also dust, and fear, in the Owens Valley air today. Many Inyo County residents worry about cancer, respiratory disease and pulmonary illnesses caused by toxic dust blowing off Owens Lake which was drained dry by the DWP in 1913. L.A. got its water, Owens Valley residents got sick.
 
Once a hundred miles square and up to fifty feet deep,Owens Lake is now the largest source of toxic dust pollution in America. The dust is as light as face powder, as thick as dense fog, and hangs in the air for days. It is packed with arsenic, selenium, cadmium and other toxic elements. It blows from north to Bishop, south to Palmdale, and has been tracked as far east as the Grand Canyon. When inhaled, much of the dust sticks in the lungs for life.
 
The DWP has spent nearly half a billion dollars fixing dry Owens Lake, but the job is far from over, says the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District. Some believe further repairs could be derailed by a September 27th EPA ruling that could exempt rural communities, including the Owens Valley, from federal dust pollution regulations and oversight. “That’s not science,” says the Great Basin’s Ted Schade. “That’s politics.”
 
The water wars rage on.
 
But environmentalists have scored a major victory in the Owens Valley. Under court orders and fines of $5,000 a day, the DWP is restoring 62 miles of the Lower Owens River it drained to near-extinction a century ago. A riverbed once thriving with fish, game and hundreds of species of birds and waterfowl became a long, brown gash in the high desert landscape.
 
Until now.
 
In December, water will flow down the lower Owens River for the first time in generations. The riverbed will flourish. Bluegill and largemouth bass, elk and beavers will return. Ducks and geese commuting down the Eastern Sierra Flyway will have a watery rest stop in acres of new marshes and wetlands.
 
L.A. will get 15,000 less acre feet of water from the Owens Valley every year, but Inyo County will get back a river it’s not seen for a century.  
 
“Whisky is for drinking. Water is for fighting over,” Mark Twain once said. In Owens Valley’s water wars, it’s win some — lose some. And the battle rages on. 
 
—Michael Linder
 
 

Water Wars! The Battle for Owens Valley
KNX investigative reporter Michael Linder takes you to the Owens Valley where water wars have been raging for a century. Watch the video (left) then listen to Michael Linder's special report.
 
 
Photo Gallery
 
 
William Mulholland
Aqueduct designer and builder William Mulholland. The DWP's Chief Engineer had no idea his gift of water to Los Angeles would remain controversial to this day. Mulholland died in disgrace following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. Over 500 people were killed.
Owens River
Aerial photo shows all that remains of the lower OwensRiver, a 62-mile gash in the Owens Valley landscape where a rich river enviroment was oncehome to birds, wildlife and lush landscape. The river was drained so its water could be sent to Los Angeles.
Spillway
In December, this new spillway, where the upper Owens River ends and the aquaduct begins, will send water down the lower Owens River for the first time since 1913. Water will transform the desert enviroment into lakes, marshes and wetlands.
Before...
The lower Owens River bed. Within a few years, it will be a functioning river. Trees and vegetation will line the banks. It will become a haven for wildlife. Extensive wetlands will serve birds traveling along the Eastern Sierra flyway. Herds of elk and deer will call it home.
...After
This shot of the upper Owens River gives an idea of how the lower Owens River Restoration Project will transform the lower Owens Valley. Recreational fishing will abound with largemouth bass and bluegills among the expected species.
Toxic Wasteland
Dust storms from Owens Lake carry tons of airborne Arsenic, selenium, cadmium and other toxic elements as far south as Palmdale, as far east as the Grand Canyon. The dust has been linked to respiratory illnesses and perhaps cancer. No significant studies have been conducted because the population of Inyo County is small. 
Sprinkler System
Sprinklers will keep the lake bed wet to reduce dust pollution. The DWP has spent nearly a half-billion dollars "repairing" Owens Lake, one reason why water rates are going up. Thirty square miles have been mitigated. Air pollution officials say another 10 square miles is needed.
Bad Blood
Lingering resentment of the DWP and the Owens Valley Water Wars shows up in this mural on a building in Bishop. It depicts a pipeline draining the color from the once-verdant Owens Valley. Economic justice for Owens Valley residents is the next water wars battleground.
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