12/7/2006 At last, water rejoins the lower Owens River
LOS ANGELES AQUEDUCT INTAKE, INYO COUNTY, CA--At the flick of a toggle, water flowed into the lower Owens River Wednesday afternoon, December 6.

Although the water flowed from the same Los Angeles aqueduct intake that diverted the Owens River more than ninety years ago, rather than directly from the upper Owens River, hundreds of people witnessed and cheered the small flow as a good first step in mending relations between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley.

The project, intended as partial mitigation for environmental damage from Los Angeles' groundwater pumping from 1970 to 1990, had remained in dry dock for years until Inyo County Superior Court Judge Lee Cooper, Jr., ordered Los Angeles to initiate flows by late January 2007 or lose the use of its second aqueduct. The ruling resulted from a series of lawsuits initiated by the Sierra Club and the Owens Valley Committee--a local water-policy-oriented citizens' action group. Among other measures, Cooper ordered that Los Angeles temporarily reduce its groundwater pumping and pay a $5,000-a-day fee until flows in the lower Owens River reach a specified level.

"There it is. Take it back," said H. David Nahai, President of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners, before introducing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at a ceremony to celebrate the initiation of flows. Nahai's audience, many of them Owens Valley residents, applauded his slight modification of the 1913 speech William Mulholland gave to San Fernando Valley residents after Mulholland had diverted the Owens River to the Los Angeles Aqueduct. ("There it is," Mulholland said originally. "Take it.")

"Like these waters behind us, we need to change course," said Villaraigosa. "....We have an historic obligation and an essential role to play." He spoke not only of the relationship between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley, but also of the role he hoped Los Angeles would someday achieve as one of the "cleanest and greenest" cities in the U.S.

"It's about damn time," observed a bystander.

Water reentered the river at a not atypically delicate juncture in relations between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley. Earlier in the week, the City and the Great Basin Air Pollution Control district finished renegotiating the conditions under which the City would control dust emissions from the Owens dry lake bed, which became the largest point source of particulate matter pollution in the United States after Los Angeles' surface water diversions.

Los Angeles' continued groundwater pumping remains a significant environmental concern in the Owens Valley. In spite of two high runoff years and a court order that temporarily reduced pumping, water tables have not recovered to levels set by a 1991 Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) established by the City and Inyo County, and alkali meadows in the valley have showed a steady decline over the last few decades. Many mitigation projects for previous groundwater pumping damage remain stalled. A few years ago, Los Angeles unilaterally suspended a Drought Recovery Policy instituted by Inyo and Los Angeles to allow groundwater tables in the Owens Valley to recover from low run-off years and avoid further environmental damage. Committee meetings between Inyo County and the City to coordinate joint water management policy under the terms of the 1991 LTWA ceased in 2003.

Those meetings, however, finally resumed last month--a signal from Villaraigosa's administration that the mayor hopes to stop the downward spiral in relations between Inyo County and Los Angeles.

Two leaders of local groups echoed that hope in their remarks at the rewatering ceremony.

"Cities in the American West, and indeed all over the world, are engaged in a struggle to obtain adequate water supplies for their burgeoning populations. And the struggle has often been bitter and wasteful," said Carla Scheidlinger, president of the Owens Valley Committee. The rewatering ceremony, she said, "marks what we 'watchers of the water' fervently hope is the beginning of a new era of cooperation with Los Angeles."

"The commencement of the Lower Owens River Project is a symbol of the hope we have for the future. It's a symbol of the improvement that's occurred in our working relationship with the city during the last nine months," said Mark Bagley, a longtime local Sierra Club leader who has also been instrumental in the negotiations and lawsuits surrounding Owens Valley water.

After the lower Owens River rewatering ceremony, once the crowd had cleared and the mayor had returned to Los Angeles, a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) employee carefully reduced the water flow from the aqueduct to the river. The Los Angeles DWP has not yet completed work on the pumpback station that will return water from the southern end of the river to the Los Angeles aqueduct, where the water will resume its journey to Los Angeles. Until the pumpback station is ready, flows will be kept at minimal levels to prevent water from reaching the Owens Lake bed, where a different set of lawsuits have governed how much water goes where. Perhaps more important, as Water and Power Commissioner Mary Nichols noted dryly during the ceremony, "DWP releases no drop of water ahead of its time."
--Ceal Klingler

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