By Bryan Hatchell,

Desert Policy Associate, Friends of the Inyo

From the right angle on the southern slopes of Conglomerate Mesa, one can see the fractured polygons of the southern end of the Owens Lake beaming in translucent pinks, sunburst oranges, navy blues, and every shade of grey and beige one can imagine. Owens Lake stands as a salt-steeped symbol of how the deceit of industry can permanently scar an area and impact its residents for the rest of time. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s (LADWP) aqueduct is a snake-like leviathan that stands as a monumental reminder of the water transported daily from Inyo County to the city of LA, leaving only enough water for residents and businesses to seemingly exist. There is no water to grow and barely enough to remain in stasis. If swindling all the water out of this valley knocked us down, the subsequent Owens Lake dust bowl was the extra kick in our teeth while we’re on the ground. But in a true testament to the resiliency of the people in these parts, we stood back up and demanded action from LADWP. The Department of Water and Power has taken great (court-mandated) lengths to remediate Owen’s Lake and decrease the lung clogging dust pollution in our area. The reclamation is not perfect. Actually, it is far from ideal. But it is better than what it used to be. Through this tangled web of environmental damage, litigation, citizen protest, and reclamation stands one unassailable fact: The water in this valley has been taken from us and LADWP shows no plans of giving it back. And Payahuunadu (Owen’s Valley) is forever changed because of it.

When soaking this history lesson in from the craggy cliff sides of Conglomerate Mesa, it’s easy to wonder about the modern assault on the Inyo County water supply. With Canadian exploration company, K2 Gold, preparing for an all-out mining assault on Conglomerate Mesa, many scratch their heads and wonder, “Where the heck will water for the larger open-pit cyanide mine come from?” Every drop of water in this valley is a knock-down, drag-out fight and there is no better case-and-point than K2 Gold’s recent water fiasco with the Lone Pine Golf Course, now dubbed “pond-gate.” In September 2020, K2 Gold illegally siphoned water from a pond at the Lone Pine Golf Course, filling their many 50 gallon drums with the water. The Lone Pine Golf Course is a lessee of LADWP, meaning LADWP owns all water rights on that land. K2 Gold had already filled up their 50 gallon drums when they received a phone call from LADWP officials demanding the return of the water. With tails tucked, K2 Gold poured the water from their drums back into the ponds. This action shows the overall disconnect this company has with our County. We’ve been fighting for nearly 100 years to simply maintain the water needed for our way of life in the Owens Valley. And this company thinks they can steal it from LADWP? Good luck!

Eventually, K2 Gold found the water they needed from a residential private well. In November of 2020, K2 Gold completed a helicopter-access-only exploration program, which was approved in 2018 by the Ridgecrest Bureau of Land Management. This first phase of exploration was approved to use 1,000 gallons of water per day for three months of operation. Due to modifications in the drill techniques, K2 Gold claims to have reduced the water needed to roughly 500 gallons for the entire project, which I still struggle to believe. K2 Gold is now ramping up for a new phase of exploration at Conglomerate Mesa that would drastically increase impacts to land and water consumption. The company is requesting to drill 120 drill holes and carve roads into Conglomerate Mesa and the surrounding mountains. Not only would water-use increase to assist with the drilling operations, but K2 Gold would need water for new road construction and to assist with dust suppression on all the Saline Valley roads they would travel on for this work. Where will this next round of water come from? Are a few private wells enough to meet this project’s demands? Will the company try to buy water from the town of Keeler?

All of this uncertainty is wrapped in the unignorable elephant in the room: “Where will the water come from for an open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mine?” For reference, the Castle Mountain open-pit gold mine, located on the eastern end of the Castle Mountain National Monument in the Mojave Desert, is approved to use up to 203 million gallons of water per year. The entire city of Bishop consumes roughly 600 million gallons of water a year. If Conglomerate Mesa becomes a fully developed industrial open-pit gold mine, how could we justify using nearly one-third of the amount of water the city of Bishop uses annually? And it’s possible the mine could require even more water. A USGS study published in 2012 titled, “Estimated Water Requirements of Gold Heap Leach Operations,” calculated that an open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mine that averages five metric tons of production annually will need somewhere between 500 million gallons to 1.2 billion gallons of water per year. This amount of excess water in the Owen’s Valley simply does not exist.

The Owen’s Lake is a stark reminder of the deceit and empty promises of faraway interests that seek to take advantage of our small towns. But the people here are strong and wise. If water for the larger mine would never exist, why even consider this exploration plan? Why let K2 Gold carve up Conglomerate Mesa based on promises of a mine that is logistically impossible? Will they try to get water from LADWP? If they have any success, I hope they let our local water officials know!

People stand up for Conglomerate Mesa to protect one of the last truly wild areas in the California Desert. Between the local Tribal Nations, environmental groups, grassroots activists, and local businesses, the floodgates of opposition are fully open. We’ve bought the promises industry in the past and we live with the futures of their impacts, for better and for worse. Benjamin Franklin once said, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” In Inyo County, our collective wells have been dry for many years. We know the worth of water. And it’s worth more than gold.

Friend of the Inyo’s mission is to ensure the public lands of the Eastern Sierra exist in an intact, healthy natural state for people and wildlife through preservation, stewardship, exploration, and education. For more info on the Conglomerate Mesa go here.