At a dusty desert ceremony 235 miles north of the city Wednesday,
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will close a century-long
chapter on what may be the biggest water grab in the history of the
Mr. Villaraigosa will push a button to send water flowing down a
62-mile stretch of rocky culverts and scrubland once known as the
Lower Owens River. The move effectively turns the clock back to
1913, before city fathers diverted the water that flowed down from
the Sierra-Nevada Mountains, and channeled it to Los Angeles. That
diversion, orchestrated after years of backroom deals (chronicled in
the 1974 classic, "Chinatown"), helped give rise to America's second-
largest city. But it turned the mountain-ringed valley into a
Now, several officials call the current effort the most ambitious
river restoration ever attempted in the US.
It will create a flowing river through what is now dry land
dotted only with tiny pools of runoff. The project comes after
decades of animosity between northern and southern California that
led to a 1970 court case and a 1997 promise by the Los Angeles
Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to return the water by 2003.
After further stalls and fines, a mayoral administration wishing
to turn over a new leaf acquiesced to the project.
"The significance of this cannot be overstated," says H. David
Nahai, president of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power
Commissioners. "Inyo County gets 62 miles of desert reborn with
fish, birds, wildlife, plants, and wetlands, and Los Angeles sees
the end of decades of acrimony by doing the right, environmentally
Mr. Nahai says that because four new pumps will then return the
redirected water to the L.A. aqueduct after its 62-mile journey, the
project will barely affect L.A.'s water supply.
But the new agreement will mean Los Angeles customers will have
to find about 9,000 acre feet of water - roughly the needs of 9,000
homes for one year - from other sources, such as the Colorado River,
or through better reclamation, reuse, and conservation. But Nahai
and other officials say the city has been successful with
conservation efforts as a result of public education campaigns,
tested during intermittent droughts since the 1980s. Though Los
Angeles has added more than 750,000 residents since 1986, it uses
the same amount of water today as then.
For Inyo County, however, the change is considered to be
"This is definitely an historic turning point for Inyo County
that residents have been waiting for for a long time," says Denise
Racine of the California Department of Fish and Game. Besides the
aesthetic beauty of a flowing river that attracts anglers, boaters,
and swimmers, the river is expected to generate an explosion of
plant life that includes banks of new trees.
That, in turn, helps to spur the return of more birds and
wildlife, including elk, deer, and wild mink.
"In 10 years this place will be magnificent," says Kathleen New,
president of the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce and a lifelong
resident. "This is a very, very big deal for us to know that people
will want to come here, spend time and enjoy the beauty. …