Thursday, December 7, 2006

Letting the River Flow

(Graphic source: LA Times)

Students of Los Angeles history know Nov. 5, 1913 as the day William Mulholland sealed Los Angeles' fate as a booming metropolis, officially opening the L.A. aqueduct.

But it came at a price: So much water was diverted from Owens Valley that the once lush, green area was turned into a desert. Owens Lake was dry by 1924. (The film "Chinatown" was based on these events.) A second aqueduct, built in 1970, caused even further harm to the valley.

Fast forward to Dec. 6, 2006. More than 90 years later, water returned to the Lower Owens River for the first time. Under a new system constructed by the DWP, water will now be diverted from the aqueduct to the river, where water will flow for 62 miles. The hope is that within five years wetlands, fisheries and nature will be restored.

Under the $39 million system, the water will then be pumped back into the aqueduct just north of the dry Owens Lake. The Los Angeles Times recounts the settlement that led to the partial river restoration:

After groundwater pumping by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power between 1970 and 1990 destroyed habitat in the Owens Valley, the department agreed in 1991 to restore the Lower Owens River to compensate for the damage...

In 2001, a suit was brought by the California Department of Fish and Game, the California State Lands Commission, the Sierra Club and the Owens Valley Committee, accusing the DWP of deliberately missing deadlines for implementing the plan.

The DWP had missed at least 13 deadlines by last September, when a state Court of Appeal upheld an Inyo County Superior Court order that would ban the city from using the Second Los Angeles Aqueduct if it continued delaying the river restoration project.

Inyo County Judge Lee E. Cooper also imposed fines of $5,000 a day until water flowed again in the Lower Owens River at a rate of 40 cubic feet per second.

By today, the DWP will have paid $2,285,000 in fines...

Local residents hope it will boost the struggling economies of the small towns dotting the Owens Valley — Bishop, Big Pine, Independence and Lone Pine — with new opportunities for fishing, hunting, hiking and bird watching.

Of course, the move doesn't come close to reversing the environmental mess that 90 years of diverting water has created in Owens Valley. The revitalized river will be shallow -- 2 to 6 feet at most. Owens Lake will remain dry. LA Observed notes that veteran reporter Benett Kessler, who owns a radio and TV outlet in the area, isn't impressed.

Mayor Villaraigosa was on hand to flip the switch and send the water flowing; he then hopped on a private jet to return to L.A. and help unveil NBC Universal's new master plan for Universal City (see below). Busy day for the mayor.

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