It was the stuff of nightmares and easy to imagine that all the demons of Hell had been unleashed as the wind moaned, howled and gusted ferociously while loose panels of roofing screeched, banged and clattered through a seemingly endless and sleepless night.
Was the tortured moonscape of the dry Owens Lake expressing its outrage at the pain, suffering and injustices of the past century following the audacious theft of its waters to slake the thirst of the fast-growing City of Los Angeles?
Or was this simply another day in a land of extreme emotions and climactic conditions?
Within a decade of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 the vast lake bed had been drained and become the scene of swirling dust clouds that blocked out the sun and threatened local residents with the worst airborne pollution ever seen in the United States. Asthma and respiratory diseases were the norm.
And on the eve of the resumption of the Walking Water pilgrimage participants were given a taste of what this parched wasteland can be like when Mother Nature vents her fury. It was an uncomfortable night that won’t easily be forgotten.
And yet the mood was of excitement and hope as the dusty and sleep-deprived group wriggled out of their sleeping bags to greet the sunrise on 23 September. The previous evening had been the answer to many a fervent prayer as key role players – including a senior representative of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) – had come together in a Walking Water circle for the first time. The tone was respectful and the setting in a ruin of a building on the lakeshore as unusual as the occasion was historic.
Mike Grahek, manager of the Southern Aqueduct and head of operations and maintenance at Owens Lake, spoke of his high dream: “I’d like to see cooperation between all the parties for a mutual benefit.”
Seated alongside him was Alan Bacock, water coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute tribe, who has patiently played the role of a peacemaker despite the bitter and blood-soaked history of his people who first lost their lands and waters to ranchers 150 years ago.
Also making an important contribution to the evening were county supervisor Matt Kingsley and Owens Valley committee member Kammi Foote.
Walking Water is a journey from the source of the waters to the place of end use and is being staged in three parts over the three years. It is both a prayer and an action that began on 1 September last year and resumed on 23 September this year with a goal of reaching the famous Cascades outside of LA on 14 October. It will thread its way through to the ocean on the final leg late next year.
The walk coincides with an urgent global focus on water issues with California in the grip of its fifth year of crippling drought. To make matters worse, the summer of 2016 has been the hottest in US history.
It has brought together an international gathering of change agents including community leaders, activists, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, photographers and members of the First Nation tribes. Their goal is to listen to and get to know the local watershed, to learn from old and new stories and ultimately to create a new and regenerative relationship with water and each other.
Among those attending a blessing ceremony at the start were tribal elders and the LADWP representative. All seemed deeply touched when eight-year-old Lydia Gonzales of the Lone Pine tribe and her baby sister Mariah as they sang an opening song.
The first days of the 2016 event have seen a rollercoaster of emotions as often-footsore walkers have navigated challenging inner and outer landscapes.
We’re following the waterways – natural and manmade. But mostly it has been tramping along in the heat beside an aqueduct buried beneath the ground, with occasional glimpses of a giant pipeline snaking its way south. Sightings of open bodies of water have been rare.
One brief stop was at the controversial Crystal Geyser bottling plant that is pumping precious groundwater from wells alongside the dry lake at Olancha. Requests to learn more from management have so far been unsuccessful, possibly because their hands have been full in the wake of a damning grand jury finding reported on the front page of a local newspaper.
The Crystal Geyser website claims that their ‘alpine spring water’ is the only major US bottled water that’s captured directly at authentic natural springs, while other major bottled brands are actually selling filtered municipal tap water.
“We’re not just environmentally friendly, we’re activists partnering with federal, state and local governments and conservation trusts to protect the land surrounding our sources. We do this for the good of the water and the life-giving nature that provides it.”
Later that day we met with Dustin Hardwick who is representing 43 residents of the tiny Cartago lakeside community who are taking action to protect their waters that they believe are being threatened and poisoned by the bottling company’s actions.
He brought us copies of the Inyo Register newspaper that reports a grand jury finding that county officials neglected the concerns of residents regarding claims of arsenic contamination and toxic pollution at the Olancha plant.
According to the report proper permitting was not obtained for an arsenic pond at the Crystal Geyser site at Orlancha and arsenic was released into the underground water aquifer after the pond liner failed.
In the first week the only place where the walkers came into close contact with a sizable body of water was at the Little Lake Ranch adjoining Highway 395. The beautiful lake is fed by natural springs and serves a group of 25 wealthy duck hunters who are determined to protect the waters and expand wetland habitats to support more wildlife.
Attorney Gary Arnold welcomed the walkers and enthusiastically showcased the beautiful property adjoining Fossil Falls, a prized picnic and camping site.
He stressed that he and his fellow duck hunters are keen conservationists and recounted the story of a successful legal battle to prevent the nearby Coso geothermal plant from depleting the groundwater in a quest to keep generating electricity. The operation was literally running out of steam and wanted to pump fresh groundwater into the system.
“How green is your energy when you deplete groundwater in a desert,” he asked.
A compromise was reached allowing Coso a tenth of the water at Little Lake although it seems that the operation wasn’t especially viable anyway and pumping stopped a few weeks ago.
Walking Water is becoming a meeting ground for many who have profound water experiences and each day participants sit in circle and share fresh insights.
Lia Bentley, a 24-year-old artist from New Jersey, says: “The pilgrimage has already created alliances among those who walk from different parts of the country and the globe with those who live in this watershed. I feel very moved by the resilience of the communities along our route and by the possibility of healing relationships with the land and waters.”
Ray Naylor-Hunter, Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone tribal elder, has been inspired by the commitment of Walking Water and other initiatives to heal our broken relationship with the Earth and her waters.
After a long hot day on the trail, he was moved to tears and declared: “This is the great turning my people have been praying for. There are so many people here engaged in wonderful bridge-building work.”
May it continue …
This blog was written by Geoff Dalglish and originally posted on his personal blog, Earth Pilgrim Africa. Geoff is an ambassador for the Findhorn Foundation community during the Walking Water pilgrimage and is also an international representative for the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN).