Tracking the extensive issues that revolve around water in the Owens Valley can take on the feeling of preparing for a never-ending series of meetings followed by long hours studying and pondering reports and legal briefs and court decisions, and then working with others to determine how to send a clear message and develop effective strategies. Usually, local water watchers and citizen activists find themselves in an adversarial situation as they try to change the policies of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Inyo County.
Engaging in water issues on the policy level can be a rather confrontational intellectual exercise, in other words, with a focus on arcane details and data, tracking incremental change over time, interpreting judges’ rulings, or grappling with the complex relationships that make up a desert ecosystem.
Walking Water, a unique, almost meditative approach to relating with water in the Owens Valley landscape, gave a number of local water activists the opportunity to explore a more personal approach to understanding the importance of water in the Eastern Sierra. Instead of developing policy papers and position statements, the Walking Water participants took many days and many miles to explore a deeper, more personal connection to water.
For more than a few people, that approach was a revelation.
“It was transformative,” said Chris Langley, of Lone Pine, who walked one week with the group. “It made you really look at water and explore how you feel about it. It made me rethink water’s role in a desert landscape.”
Besides the quiet, walking meditation, the group held numerous “community days” where the public and a variety of speakers presented water issues. And along the route, the walkers would stop and listen to locals, like second generation Owens Valley rancher Zack Smith, tell their water stories. “It was sort of like a walking class because of the speakers and events.”
About 30 other Walking Water pilgrims from across the US and the world, made the 190-mile trek, which took them from Mono Lake to the shores of the Owens Lake over three weeks in September. “The people were wonderful,” Langley added. “They were very welcoming and supportive.”
The experience “made me rethink how I look at water” in the valley, Langley said, and “allowed me to really get a feel for the land I’ve living in for 40 years.”
Other participants shared their experiences and impressions during interviews during the wrap-up dinner and dance in Independence.
The walkers incorporated “prayers and spirituality” into the daily marches, noted Kathy Jefferson, of the Lone Pine Paiute Tribe. The pilgrimage was essentially “bearing witness to what’s going to help heal this valley.”
The group that gathered for the event conveyed “a genuine feeling of trying to understand, learn about and appreciate the water issues in the valley.” The walkers will now go to their home “watersheds” and share the stories and feelings they experienced in the Owens Valley, she noted. “It’s really encouraging.”
Bishop native Jasmine Amara said growing up with the Owens Valley’s water issues made her want to “document the water story” in photos. The walk delivered far more than documentary photos. “It was one of the most transformative and eye-opening experiences of my life,” she said. “I got, on a personal level, a feel for the water history in the Owens Valley.”
Tracing her family’s pioneer history in the Owens Valley brought Yaney LeeAnn MacIver back for the walk. The pilgrimage took her back to MacIver Lane in Bishop and over the land that her great-grandfather homesteaded outside of Independence, “which DWP got.”
“It’s wonderful to be back in the Owens Valley again,” she said. “It’s a hard land, but a beautiful land.”
The Walking Water experience “was so different” than much of the “water work” many engage in the Valley, said Alan Bacock of the Big Pine Tribe. That work typically means “sitting across the table and presenting different perspectives.” What is missing in many of those situations is the ability to recognize a larger reality and set of relationships with water, the land and each other. “By acknowledging the Creator and Creation and each other (Walking Water) did that.”
“It was life-changing.”
Mike Prather of Lone Pine summed up one of the critical messages the Walking Water pilgrims wanted to explore and explain: “Water is not a commodity; it is life itself and it needs to be respected.”
This article originally appeared in the Inyo Register. It was written by register correspondent, Jon Klusmire. Thank you Inyo Register for sharing the story of Walking Water! All photos in this blog were provided by Jasmine Amara. The featured image shows walkers joining hands with residents of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe. Children shared traditional song and dance with the Walking Water group.