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Located in Inyo County in southeastern California, the Owens Valley stretches for approximately 75 miles (121 kilometers) between the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west and the White and Inyo Mountains to the east. Owens Valley is most notable for an intense battle persisting throughout the 20th and early 21st century between the city of Los Angeles and local residents over land rights and the diversion of the valley’s surface and groundwater. Owens Valley provides a significant portion of Los Angeles’s water despite being located over 200 miles (322 kilometers) to the northeast.
Prior to the diversions, the region was site to Owens Lake, an important stopover for migratory birds and a navigable water body for recreation. The valley was also home to the Owens River, which supported rare high desert riparian habitat and provided water to local farmers. The Owens Valley “water wars” began when the city of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), under the orchestration of Superintendent William Mulholland, drew up plans to divert water from the Owens River to an aqueduct serving the city of Los Angeles. The LADWP acquired water rights from valley farmers and ranch owners despite their protests. By 1913 the 223-mile (359-kilometer) Los Angeles Aqueduct was complete and began diverting water from the Owens River.
In the years following the initial diversions, 50 miles (81 kilometers) of the Owens River as well as Owens Lake dried up. Farmers in the region gave up their dying crops and orchards and were forced to relocate as the region lost its vegetation cover and productive capabilities. A second aqueduct built in 1970, which was heavily dependent on pumping groundwater from Owens Valley, only exacerbated the desertification process.
By 1970, early environmental regulations began affecting the future of both the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Owens Valley. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) of 1970 required the LADWP to describe the environmental consequences of their diversion projects in an environmental impact report (EIR). In 1972, Inyo County used these stipulations to take LADWP to court over their plans to increase groundwater pumping in Owens Valley. The LADWP submitted two EIRs in 1976 and 1979 that were both rejected by the courts.
Numerous scientific studies and court cases occurred over the next 20 years, and several EIRs were unsuccessfully negotiated. Meanwhile, the city of Los Angeles continued to pump groundwater out of Owens Valley. By 1997, the Owens Valley Committee, the Sierra Club, and others signed a Memorandum of Understanding to outline the rewatering of lower portions of the Owens River. Although the majority of this rewatering has yet to occur, the Owens Lake basin is now occasionally shallow flooded by the city of Los Angeles in order to control air pollution from alkali dust storms. Enough water is present in the Owens Lake vicinity to still be designated a Nationally Significant Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.
In 2004, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn proposed a Conservation Easement for all LADWP land in the Owens Valley. Advocates for this plan argue that it would protect the region from economic growth in neighboring areas, while critics argue that the city of Los Angeles will continue to control a landscape they took from local residents nearly 100 years ago.
- Rebecca Fish Ewan, A Land Between: Owens Valley, California (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000);
- Norris Hundley, Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History (University of California Press, 2001);
- Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (Penguin Books, 1993).