Track 5: Mark Bagley, Owens Valley Committee

With the defeat of the Owens Valley resistance movement in the late 1920s the valley and its dwindling population entered into a state of acquiescence as the city’s “water colony.” At the beginning of the 1930s nearly 50 miles of the Owens River was dry and by 1926 Owens Lake had been drained entirely. Ninety-five percent of all previous privately owned farm, ranchland, commercial town sites and buildings were now owned by the City of Los Angeles. Although the 1931 County of Origin statute protected other regions in California from a similar fate, the damage in Owens Valley was already complete.

Over time, the region transitioned, relying on a new economic model to sustain the rural communities dotting the valley floor based on tourism rather than agriculture. Instead of providing agricultural products and other commodities, the region now utilized the majestic Eastern Sierra as the scenic backdrop for sports fishing, hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities. Father John L. Crowley, a popular Catholic priest known locally as “the desert padre” is credited in recognizing and promoting the region’s potential for environmental tourism.

Los Angeles continued with the necessary steps to increase its interminable water supply demands. By 1940, LADWP completed an eleven-mile tunnel connecting the Mono Basin with the upper Owens River in Long Valley that increased the aqueduct’s capacity by 35%. Concurrently, Bishop Ranchers initiated a fight to protect the “Bishop Cone” area from LADWP groundwater pumping and export and won.

In 1963, the City of Los Angeles approved plans to construct its “second barrel” aqueduct with a capacity of 290 cubic feet per second or 300,000 acre feet per year (in contrast, the initial aqueduct constructed in 1913 has a capacity of 485 cfs). [1] This addition would increase the amount of water LADWP could export from the Eastern Sierra by 50% from three sources: increased surface flows from the Mono Basin and the Owens Valley; reduced irrigation on city owned properties in Owens and Mono counties; and increased groundwater pumping within Owens Valley.

Groundwater pumping activities began in the valley as early as 1918 when Mulholland determined that surface flows, namely the entire flow of the Owens River and its associated inflows, were not enough to supply his thirsty, growing metropolis into the future.[2] Even with supplemental pumping large swaths of groundwater dependent plants and ecosystems still covered the valley floor up to 1970.

Unfortunately, things began to drastically change when the “second barrel” was finally put into service in 1972. At this time LADWP began to a substantial increase in its groundwater pumping for export activities. Native vegetation and meadow ecosystems dependent on groundwater began to wither to be replaced by opportunist invasive weed species and became “desertified.”[3] Natural springs, seeps, and wetlands disappeared. Once productive agricultural lands now denied irrigation returned to arid desert scrub. Mature, stately trees lining the town streets that never required additional watering in the past began to die. Dust storms occurred at more regular intervals in areas far north of the dry Owens lakebed. Community residents became agitated at what they saw around them and took action, urging their officials to follow suit thus initiating an era of ligation between Inyo County and the City of Los Angeles that lasted more than twenty-five years.

[1] LADWP website: Los Angeles Aqueduct Facts. Last accessed 9/8/12.
[2] William Kahrl, “Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles’ Water Supply in the Owens Valley,” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 254.
[3] Generally, the alkali meadow habitat found within the Owens Valley relies on  shallow groundwater to survive. In contrast, grasslands, which are not naturally present in Owens Valley, are precipitation dependent. Because Owens Valley is a rain-shadow desert it receives very little rainfall annually.

For more detailed information on this topic, see: C.J. Klingler, “A brief overview: recent Owens Valley water history and the OVC,” and Daniel Pritchett, “Desertification as usual: groundwater management under the Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement,” both at the Owens Valley Committee website.

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