Los Angeles Changes Water Policy

Pumping of Owens Valley water will be regulated by strict environmental concerns. WELLS IN THE DESERT

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.A. water board appointments by an environmentally conscious Mayor Tom Bradley have eased the situation, Mr. Rossman says. So has the need for L.A. officials to salvage their own image after five years of drought. "Searching for new water sources across the West in time of drought, they can't afford the image they [once] presented in the Owens Valley," says Rossman. While keeping a reliable supply of water for export to Los Angeles, the plan's goal is to limit future environmental change in the valley and mitigate damage already done. Planners have divided the valley into management areas and sub zones with monitoring sites for various kinds of wildlife and vegetation. There are provisions for the automatic turn off of wells if such monitoring indicates adverse impacts from pumping. Several "enhancement/mitigation" sites will result in irrigation and re-greening - most notably a 60-mile re-watering of a dry river bed. "Nowhere in the West can you find a project of this magnitude," says David Groeneveld, the ecologist who will head the Lower Owens River program. "The pattern has been to de-water such areas, [whereas] these 60 miles will be put back." Though the agreement is not yet law, it has already suspended years of enmity and charges of paternalism. Both sides anticipate benefits from more sensitive water management. "This is historic in that two warring parties have been able to compromise out of the courts," says LADWP's Gerald Gewe, engineer of water resources planning. "Traditionally in California, all water rights issues have been decided in litigation." Whereas "before the relationship was adversarial, we are now equal partners," says Jackson.

Watching the pumps The hydrologist's ultra-sound device is a means of ensuring that LADWP is indeed taking only what it says it is. The amount to be taken is decided jointly by committee each March. For the rest of the year, night or day, Jackson and others may monitor any of 96 pump sites across the valley - without permission of LADWP. By shutting off pumps in one locale, officials have raised the groundwater table two feet. "To be actually in a recovery during drought has never happened in California," says Jackson. Though a solid core of town officials and outside environmental organizations are behind the new agreement, a vocal minority of locals is not. "If the people of Inyo County could vote against it, they would," says Don Marcelin, a 65-year resident and retiree. He says the water is sold too cheaply - a fraction of what LADWP must pay for water from northern California or Colorado. But others feel the agreement has set the stage for more that can benefit the Owens Valley. Last spring, for instance, LADWP agreed to restore some of the flow of the upper Owens River in neighboring Mono County. That "would not have happened without our agreement," says Ms. Villa of ICWD.

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