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.
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.