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The Inyo - Los Angeles Long Term Water Agreement: An Introduction

The "rape of Owens Valley" (Walton 1992) is old news. The story of Los Angeles's acquisition of most of the land and water rights on the Owens Valley floor, its epic construction of a 200+ mile aqueduct, its destruction of the valley's agricultural economy, the violence of local resistance, the draining of about 60 miles of Owens River and all of Owens Lake -- these are all well documented by historians (Kahrl 1982, Walton 1992, Sauder 1994), and have even served as the inspiration for novels and movies (Would you believe "Under Wester Stars," for example, Roy Roger's first feature movie, is a re-working of the Owens Valley Water War?)

In both ecological, and legal terms, however, there is quite another story to tell. Though there is no doubt that Los Angeles dried up Owens Lake, much of Owens River, and thousands of acres of abandoned agricultural land, native groundwater dependent ecosystems still covered large areas of the valley as recently as 1970 . In 1970, however, two important events occurred the consequences of which are still felt today: 1) Los Angeles began operating a "second barrel" of the aqueduct which increased its capacity by at least 50%; and 2) the California legislature passed the California Environmental Quality Act which gave Inyo County, for the first time, a strong legal basis to prevent, or at least require mitigation for, impacts of Los Angeles's water export activities. Inyo County quickly made use of CEQA and in 1972 initiated litigation which was not settled until the signing of the Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) in 1990. The LTWA and associated EIR require that groundwater pumping be managed to avoid significant environmental impacts while providing a reliable water supply to LA. They also specify numerous projects to mitigate pumping impacts which occurred during the litigation from 1970 to 1990 (City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and County of Inyo 1990).

Mary DeDecker, founder of the Bristlecone Chapter of CNPS, was one of the most outspoken and effective critics of DWP's mismanagement of Owens Valley water resources, and the founding of the Bristlecone Chapter in 1982 was an outgrowth of her efforts to protect the valley from this mismanagement. She advocated approval of the LTWA in the belief that it would end the decades of legal struggles with Los Angeles, and, most importantly, prevent Los Angeles from causing new impacts to Owens Valley.

Since implementation of the LTWA began in 1990, Inyo County has had to initiate two dispute resolution proceedings (under the LTWA) against Los Angeles, while one individual, two environmental groups, and two state agencies have all sued DWP. The most recent data available show many of the required mitigation projects are behind schedule if they have even been started (Inyo County Water Department 2002), while water tables in selected parcels throughout Owens Valley remain too low to sustain the vegetation the LTWA is supposed to protect (Manning 2002). DWP has bragged that its legal budget alone exceeds the entire annual budget for Inyo County (James 2001), and Inyo County Supervisors discuss almost all issues pertaining to the LTWA in closed session because there are so many potential grounds for litigation. While DWP voluntarily performs good deeds in the form of donating equipment for various Owens Valley civic projects and has been forced to protect Mono Lake and implement massive, costly dust migitgation measures at Owens Lake, its bad faith in implementation of the LTWA remains the agency's "dirty little secret."

I offer these web pages to shed some light on this "secret," in the belief that the sunshine of public scrutiny has a remarkable power to cleanse and disinfect, as well as to motivate and empower. I also offer these web pages in the hope that people in other areas may learn from the (few) successes and (many) failures now occurring. The LTWA is surely one of the world's largest experiments in environmental management and there are important lessons in science, politics, law, and even philosophy which may be learned if the implementation of the LTWA is documented.

— Daniel Pritchett February 2004

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