By Dr. Sophia Borgias

What would water justice look like in a region known for its history of injustice? This was a question I posed to more than two dozen individuals who have dedicated themselves to water issues in the Owens and Mono basins. These were residents, advocates, and protectors of Payahuunadü – “the land where water flows” in the language of its Nüümü and Newe peoples – where, for more than a century, water has been made to flow hundreds of miles south to the City of Los Angeles. Yet, while questions about what these individuals were fighting against elicited lengthy descriptions of desiccated ecosystems and economies, of rights withheld and promises betrayed, and of cultures and livelihoods in peril, the question of what they were fighting for gave many people pause.

Amid the constant grind of responding to the latest threats to Payahuunadü and staying vigilant about the implementation and enforcement of previously hard-won safeguards, visions for justice can get buried. One person described how it is easy to become “kind of pigeon-holed into just being adversaries,” and another said that the question of vision “is often forgotten,” noting “we need to have the imagination, the pictures, the dreams, the actions, the prayers around what we’re for.” As we got further into these conversations, visions for justice did start to emerge, revealing a whole range of perspectives.

These conversations took place in the context of interviews I was conducting for a research project about the unlikely alliances of environmentalists, ranchers, native nations, and others that have formed in response to rural-urban water conflicts in the Great Basin. From Payahuunadü to eastern Nevada, where I spoke with folks who had mobilized in opposition to a proposed inter-basin transfer of groundwater to Las Vegas, people have been coming together around shared interests in protecting rural landscapes and livelihoods, even if their motivations and visions for what that would look like may differ.

But while in Nevada there was a clear goal everyone agreed on — preventing the pipeline project from being built (which they successfully accomplished in 2020) — in Payahuunadü, the aqueduct has been in place for more than a century and there is not a single goal. The efforts to protect and rehabilitate the region from the ongoing impacts of Los Angeles’s water export operations are wide-ranging and dispersed across a vast territory stretching from Owens Lake to Mono Lake. From dust emissions off dry lake beds to flood-irrigated ranch leases, from revegetation projects to tribal water rights, and from pupfish habitat to economic development, there are a plethora of issues in the background of discussions about what water justice would look like in Payahuunadü.

The biggest difference that stood out among the visions of water justice that were shared with me was their orientation toward the present. Is justice about protecting or transforming the status quo? For some, particularly for ranchers who have only recently started mobilizing against Los Angeles policies that have threatened the water supply for their operations on land leased from the city, a just outcome would be one in which things remain as they have been in recent decades. One rancher simply stated, “I’d like to maintain the status quo.” Since the 1930s, Los Angeles’s land leasing policies have benefitted these ranchers, and they have been glad to have support from environmentalists and others in trying to protect their ability to continue flood irrigating pastures Owens Valley and Long Valley.

However, for many others, the status quo has included social, cultural, and ecological impacts that are unacceptable to them. But on the question of how to address these impacts and create a more just future, there are a wide range of views. For groups like the Owens Valley Committee, the primary solution lies in implementing the existing agreements that are intended to protect the region from the worst impacts of water extraction. In particular, they have been fighting to enforce the Long Term Water Agreement signed by Inyo County and Los Angeles in 1991, which mandated a range of mitigation projects, some of which remain incomplete or unsuccessful. One member envisioned a future in which Los Angeles would “honor its commitments and take a more holistic approach to its resources in Eastern Sierra.” Others emphasized that, while the LTWA is not perfect, honoring it would be an important first step “if they could at least live up to that,” noting “we are not even there yet.”

Many others argued that the LTWA, even if fully implemented, is not enough to address the impacts of Los Angeles’s groundwater pumping. Some articulated a vision of justice for Payahuunadü in which the pumping is drastically reduced or stopped altogether. A future in which Los Angeles only diverted surface water, and only after the needs of local communities and ecosystems were met. One person stated, “I would love that everybody and everything, every being, has enough water that it needs.”

These visions hinge upon change within Los Angeles in order for the city to become more self-sufficient. And there is good progress being made in that direction. But, the city still clings tightly to its land and water rights. So some pointed out the need to address not only the water but also the power imbalance that comes with it, emphasizing the need for more equitable and inclusive decision-making.

Tribal land and water rights and Indigenous stewardship featured prominently in these visions of a Payahuunadü transformed. Some people noted that there could be no real justice without a restoration of land, water, and decision-making power to native nations in the region. However, it is notable that the ongoing fight for tribal water rights has not galvanized broad-based support within the valley to the extent it has elsewhere. I found that non-Indigenous residents of Payahuunadü sometimes weighed their support for expanding Indigenous rights against fears about whether it would lead to unwanted development or displacement of non-Indigenous land users like ranchers. It would disrupt the status quo.

Some pointed out that disrupting the status quo is necessary to support justice. A few individuals argued that real justice for Payahuunadü would be “DWP leaving and this place getting some self determination.” In this vision, export of water from the region ceases, Los Angeles withdraws, and its lands are protected by conservation easements or even a working national park, potentially with native nations at the lead. While many expressed fear that Los Angeles withdrawing would leave a dangerous vacuum, others saw it as an opportunity to uplift Indigenous stewardship.

A representation of the different visions for water justice articulated in interviews, with the core representing where there was the most agreement/support and the expanding concentric circles showing broader definitions that typically also included the other definitions within them.

As we can see, water justice means different things to different people. And when I shared this diversity of views with participants, many emphasized that they did not all need to have the same vision to be working together and moving in the right direction. While there was some consternation about the way that visions of more transformational change could jeopardize those that benefit from the status quo, most people kept returning to their commitment to building alliances. One person noted that this was particularly important in the context of a long history of “divide and conquer” tactics, noting that “LA has got things so fractionalized because they’ve been here for a long time doing the same thing, and they’re really good at playing off interests.” Many emphasized the need to bridge these divides, saying, for example, “we need to work together to be successful.”

Ultimately, there are many different visions for justice in Payahuunadü. And, together, they span out as a series of stepping stones toward a more just future. A diverse group of individuals from the region’s environmental, ranching, and Indigenous communities has started down that path, fighting for accountability to existing agreements and laws, protection of rural livelihoods and landscapes, support for urban sustainability and self-sufficiency, policy reform for more equitable decision-making, and the restoration of ecosystems and Indigenous stewardship. Some may not continue down the whole path, uncomfortable with the threats to the status quo, however others are sure to join in. One person described it as “moving in the faith that we could figure it out as we get there.”

What is clear is that there is a growing movement for water justice – not just in Payahuunadü, but across the Great Basin, across the West, and around the world. And having discussions about what water justice means to us and to other members of our communities can help us build a brighter future together.

This summer, I look forward to hearing more of these conversations at the Great Basin Water Justice Summit, an event I am helping to organize with the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission and the Great Basin Water Network. We hope you will plan to join us on August 3rd, 2022 for a day of panels and discussions with water protectors from Payahuunadü and eastern Nevada. In addition to hearing more about the water justice issues mentioned in this article, we’ll get to hear from members of the broad coalition that came together to defeat the Las Vegas pipeline project in Nevada. And in addition to the pipeline politics that unite these two regions, we’ll hear about a range of other water issues emerging across the Great Basin. Stay tuned for more information about how to register and participate.

Dr. Sophia Borgias is a social scientist and assistant professor at Boise State University. She has worked on collaborative research projects about water issues in Payahuunadü since 2017. This most recent project was supported by the National Science Foundation with mentorship from Dr. Kate Berry at University of Nevada, Reno.