A Search for Justice

by Owens Valley Committee

“We envision a valley in which existing open space is protected, historic land uses sustained, and depleted ground water reserves and surface water flows restored as Los Angles phases out its dependence on Owens Valley water.”

A century ago, Los Angeles diverted the Owens River into its new aqueduct after using controversial means to acquire land and water rights on the Owens Valley floor. Subsequently, Owens Valley’s agricultural economy collapsed, Owens Lake dried up, and migratory bird populations plummeted.

In 1970, Los Angeles enlarged the capacity of its aqueduct by more than 50 percent. Increased water exports devastated both Mono Basin and Owens Valley as large springs, wetlands, and irrigated ranch lands dried up.

In 1972, Inyo County sued to try to halt the devastation. Litigation in different forms continued for 19 years until Inyo and Los Angeles signed the Inyo-Los Angeles Long-Term Water Agreement in 1991.

The Water Agreement was supposed to mitigate damage done during the 19 years of litigation and to prevent new environmental impacts from occurring. It provided a small measure of justice for Inyo County by mandating joint management with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Political leaders in both Owens Valley and Los Angeles hoped the agreement would help heal old wounds.

Unfortunately, the Agreement is failing. Instead of healing old wounds it is creating new ones.


GRIDLOCK: With only two parties to the Water Agreement, important questions can’t be resolved due to one-to-one tie votes.

The Water Agreement process for resolving disputes requires both parties to consent to the wording of a disagreement before it can go to arbitration. One dispute initiated by Inyo County stalled for more than a year and a half because Los Angeles and Inyo County couldn’t agree on wording — they literally couldn’t agree about how they disagreed.

DELAY: The technical appendix to the Water Agreement was originally written in about one month. In 2007 Inyo and Los Angeles agreed to a three-year timeline for revising the document. By 2014, the eighth year of the three-year process, nothing had been settled at all.

The Lower Owens River Project, Los Angeles’ highest-profile mitigation project–meant to ameliorate environmental damage dating back to 1970–wasn’t fully implemented until 2007, after LADWP lost three lawsuits filed by the Owens Valley Committee and the Sierra Club. Many low-profile mitigation projects are failing, and Los Angeles has yet to start others, 23 years after the signing of the Water Agreement.

EXCESSIVE GROUNDWATER PUMPING: The Water Agreement’s pumping management protocol doesn’t constrain pumping sufficiently to avoid environmental damage, much less meet environmental protection goals. LADWP reports its long term average pumping to be about 90,000 acre feet of water per year; a U.S. Geological Survey report estimated that long term average pumping should not exceed about 70,000 acre feet per year. Instead of reducing pumping, LADWP plans to establish a new well field, which will damage some of the few remaining springs on the valley floor as well as affecting private wells and groundwater-dependent habitat.


Immediately limit annual pumping to 70,000 acre feet a year. This would be an average reduction of about 20,000 acre feet a year. According to LADWP conservation in Los Angeles has already reduced demand by a far greater amount.

Restore irrigation flows to Owens Valley ranchers as intended by the Water Agreement.

Bring Owens Valley Paiute representation into the Water Agreement. Representatives of Owens Valley Paiutes have made this proposal and it would break the current gridlock. This would be a step toward justice as well as improved management.

Protect existing open space on DWP land. In 2004 LA Mayor Hahn suggested establishing conservation easements on non-urban DWP land. This proposal should be re-visited and other options explored.

Phase out LA’s dependence on Owens Valley resources. LADWP reports only 12% of the city’s water came from Owens Valley in 2013 and in 2014 only 8%. There are alternatives to the city’s continued exploitation of Owens Valley – all that is missing is political will to develop them.

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