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LA’s Vital Fluid

In response to:

Chinatowns from the October 21, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

Regarding John G. Dunne’s excellent review of William Kahrl’s book about the Owens Valley Water Grab, one significant epilogue….

While Los Angeles Water and Power destroyed only the manmade agriculture of the Owens Valley in the epoch of 1904-1927, its victim since 1972 has been the actual environment of that unhappy place. That is, in diverting surface water used previously for irrigation, the City of the Angels returned the Valley of the Owens to something like its natural state, perhaps a sin but, if so, venial as historical malfeasances go. Since 1972, by pumping ground water into the aqueduct at a faster rate than the Sierra snowpack can replenish it, Water and Power has been transforming natural desert, which is by no means lifeless or worthless, into moonscape. Native wild trees have died by the thousands and with them dependent wildlife. County health officials have noted a steep rise in respiratory disease as a consequence of unprecedented winter dust storms. Mono Lake to the north, hub of the ecology of a region as large as the Owens Valley, and the breeding ground of those seagulls even Los Angelenos find picturesque, has already been irreparably damaged by Los Angeles waterlust….

Joseph R. Conlin

Chico, California

John Gregory Dunne replies:

The highhandedness of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power does indeed continue unto the present day, its record of indifference to both the people of the Owens Valley and the environment it still pillages remaining unblemished. There was a moment of calm in the late 1960s and early 1970s when even the local chairman of the Sierra Club, gulled by DWP policies that effectively amounted to population control, was quoted as saying, “We recognize that Los Angeles is probably the savior of the valley,” this because of the city’s history of suppressing growth and development in the region. But the controversy heated up again in the mid-1970s when Inyo County (where the Owens Valley is located) went to court to force Los Angeles to assess the environmental impact of its ecological terrorism. The DWP’s response was in keeping with its long history of arrogance and insensitivity to the Owens Valley: on September 20, 1974, the DWP announced that it was cutting off all water deliveries to its agricultural and recreational lessees in the valley. To accomplish this, DWP workers had to dynamite irrigation valves which had been rusted open since the completion of the original aqueduct sixty years before. Needless to say, the DWP denied this was a punitive measure, describing it instead as “educational.”

The courts forced the DWP to vacate this draconian plan but not the attitude that goes with it. And so it still goes.

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