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Owens River Rebirth

by Worldchanging LA blogger, Foster Kerrison

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On December 6th, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pushed a button at a gate on the Los Angeles Aqueduct, returning water to the Owens River for the first time since 1913.

As cataloged in Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, and dramatized in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, the infamous Los Angeles "water grab" in the Owens Valley 200 miles to the north has become legendary. While the debate will never be completely settled, it is generally accepted that LA interests bought off local officials in the Owens Valley, guaranteeing that city engineer William Mulholland would be able to build his 233 mile aqueduct in 1913, siphoning water to the San Fernando Valley, and allowing one of the world's largest megacities to develop.

Last week's staged event was dramatic and dripping with symbolism. Legend has it that when the first Owens River water arrived in Los Angeles, Mulholland shouted, "There it is, take it!" On Wednesday, Los Angeles officials opened the ceremony by saying, "There it is, take it back." Mayor Villaraigosa went one further, stating that "Los Angeles is prepared to own up to its history." Under the new agreement, 1/20th of the water that LA removes from the valley will be diverted back to the Owens River channel.

However, the local tribe of Paiute Shoshone Indians disputed LA's claims of benevolence, pointing out that a Inyo County judge, Lee E. Cooper, had threatened to shut down the LA aqueduct if the city's Department of Water and Power (DWP) continued to avoid fulfilling obligations under a court order. The tribe has experienced high levels of asthma from heavy-metal laced alkaline dust blowing of the dry bed of Owens Lake, and they hold LA responsible. In 1991, the judge agreed, and between 1991 and last week the DWP had paid $2,285,000 in fines.

Regardless of why the water is being returned to river, the WorldChanging question is "will it make a difference?" Can degradated ecosystems be successfully renewed and recuperated? The Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce hopes so, predicting that tourism to the area will increase as people seek to "get an idea of the water they drink." It is hoped that warmwater fisheries will return, as well as rare shorebirds and native vegetation. However, according to a DWP biologist, it will be at least 4-6 years until the riparian (water-dependent) ecosystem will be reestablished.

In the meantime, here's hoping that two things will happen:

1) California environmental officials will partner with other environmental experts to closely measure and track the ecosytems renewal. This will provide important data that can be applied to similar projects, even those as far removed as the marshes in southern Iraq.

2) The local governments of the Owens Valley will sit down and plan for any projected economic development as a result of increased tourism. Comprehensive planning focused on smart land use and water resource management will ensure that the region's new water isn't wasted.

For more on this, see these news articles:
Los Angeles Times
NPR

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