L.A. Returns Water to the Owens Valley
At the dawn of 20th century, Owens Valley was a prime piece of California nature. Located between Mount Whitney and Death Valley, the land was lush with lots of runoff from the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains. But then, Los Angeles got its hands on the water and everything changed.
William Mulholland, L.A.'s visionary water engineer, dreamed of diverting the vibrant Owens River into a 233-mile-long aqueduct pointed at Los Angeles. And in 1913, after a decade of planning and construction, he did it.
Standing before a gathering of eager farmers and residents as the first water poured into Los Angeles, Mulholland stood next to the cascade and shouted, "There it is! Take it!"
Nearly a century later, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa arrived Wednesday on the same banks of the Owens River to put the water back.
"By opening these gates today, we will demonstrate to the world that the great city of Los Angeles is prepared to own up to its history and that we can thrive in partnership and in balance with our neighbors and with the environment of the eastern Sierra," Villaraigosa said. "We are here today because we need to change course. We need to move with these waters."
On the mayor's command, thousands of gallons gushed into the dry channel of the Owens River. And in a perfect bookend to Mulholland, David Nahai, president of the L.A.'s Water and Power Board, had some equally immortal words for valley residents who were there to watch the water flow.
"There it is... it's yours!" he said.
Plans call for the water to flow unimpeded along 62 winding miles of river. Before long, the bone-dry river banks will come alive with desert sage brush and salt grasses, says the L.A. Department of Water and Power's Chief Biologist Brian Tillemans.
"This section here is probably going to have the greatest transformation of any reach of the river," he says.
Downstream from the ceremonies, Tillemans walks through the brittle brush. He says it will take days for the new water to make it to this spot -- and years before the willows and wildlife make a comeback.
"Within a short span, in 5 to 7 years, you are going to see this desert brush die off and you will see the water-loving species of plants overtake the desert shrubs you see right now."
Along with the plants will come warm water fish and shore birds. And that could help turn around the valley's depressed economy, says Kathleen New of the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce. She hopes that once the river is running again, tourists will start flowing, too.
"Families can come here from the south and see what water really looks like when it's not coming out of a faucet... and get an idea of the water that they drink," New says.
But this massive effort to return some of the river's water has not erased the animosity that runs deep in the valley.
"I think it's just a facade, it's a band-aid job," says Sandra Jefferson-Young, a tribal leader of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Indians, who've been fighting Los Angeles for decades.
Besides siphoning the river, Los Angeles also drained Owens Lake, leaving a huge dry bed of white dusty sediment laced with heavy metals. On windy days, tons of toxic dust sweeps across the valley. Jefferson-Young says the dust caused her asthma. She points out that Los Angeles is now settling the dust because of a court order.
"So it's not because they want to do it, it's because they are forced to do it," Jefferson-Young says.
In fact, the latest river and wetland restoration project was also the result of decades of litigation. And the work is three years behind schedule. Los Angeles officials picked up the pace only after a judge began fining the city and threatening to block its water.
But in spite of the contentious history, many environmentalists say there's much to celebrate. Standing on the still-dry banks of the Owens River, Tillemans hopes the water will give the valley a new environment and a new life.
"Once you build the habitat they will come," the biologist says. "It's kind of a famous saying, but it's really true."
On this spot, Tillemans stops to watch a small Sora rail marsh bird. He calls it a good sign.
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