Los Angeles Changes Water Policy Pumping of Owens Valley Water Will Be Regulated by Strict Environmental Concerns. WELLS IN THE DESERT

By Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 5, 1991 | Go to article overview
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Los Angeles Changes Water Policy Pumping of Owens Valley Water Will Be Regulated by Strict Environmental Concerns. WELLS IN THE DESERT


Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


HYDROLOGIST Randy Jackson exits his dust-covered Jeep near a remote chain-link fence here.

While a mammoth pump locked inside the fence disgorges groundwater into an adjacent channel - water headed for kitchens and swimming pools 250 miles south in Los Angeles - Mr. Jackson straps a computer device to extruding pipes. An ultrasonic gauge tells him how much water is being sucked from the ground and at what speed.

This simple new procedure is being heralded as a historic turning point in the long, confrontational water-wars of the drought-scorched West.

"This is an outstanding scientific solution to something that is going to be a long-range problem throughout the West and the world for many years to come," says Bishop Mayor Jane Fisher.

For 75 years, this tiny town in the heart of the 100-mile-long Owens Valley has watched its streams and farmland leeched dry to support the growth of the nation's second-largest metropolis.

But after 20 years of litigation, Los Angeles has agreed to limit the water it takes from the valley in accord with closely-monitored environmental constraints.

"For the first time," says Greg James, director of the Inyo County Water Department (ICWD), "a major, urban area which has gone out and taken a resource from a much poorer, less politically potent area ... has finally decided to manage the way they take that water (other than) solely on the needs of the city alone."

Several observers note that the water-management arrangement is already serving as a model for unfolding water disputes in cities such as Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; and El Paso, Texas. Localities in Colorado, New York, and Japan face similar disputes.

"We are the pioneering element that everyone is watching closely," says ICWD's Paula Villa. "There are so many large and growing cities that can benefit from our model." A long battle

The history of the Owens Valley water dispute is legend across the West. Using legal but questionable means, Los Angeles officials bought up most of the land here in the early 1900s and diverted the water into a city aqueduct.

After a second aqueduct was opened during the 1970s, surface and groundwater levels were so depleted that valley residents feared the vast basin would become a permanent dust bowl.

Two decades of court battles began in 1972, when Inyo County officials sued Los Angeles in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act.

Wary of further, costly court battles with uncertain outcomes, officials from both communities worked out the new agreement two years ago.

The plan is set to be formalized into law in coming months, after state courts rule on the legitimacy of an environmental impact document.

"For 60 years LADWP (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power) ruled with the ham-handed efficiency of the Soviet Union," says Antonio Rossman, counsel to Inyo County.

New L.

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