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Where the Water Comes From: Owning -- And Owing -- the Owens Valley

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The Owens Valley, looking north from Manzanar National Historic Site. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

It's common knowledge for Los Angeles residents to know that our water supply comes from some ambiguous place oft-referred to as "up north," without much regard as to the exact location of the source, much less the method by which it magically appears from our faucets, showers and sprinklers.

For the more historically and politically aware, we know that our water comes from various faraway sources, such as the Colorado River, but most notably (and notoriously) from California's Owens Valley -- still an unknown locality to most of us city folk, or at the very least, "that place on the way to Mammoth."

Last December, following a disappointing episode in my life, I exiled myself and sought solace in that very place, intentionally far from the big city. As a native Californian, the allure of a part of the state I had not yet been to was an extremely appealing one, and I decided to lay my hat in a town called Independence, some 220 miles north of Los Angeles. Population: 600.

I had no idea what to expect, save for immersing myself in a small town atmosphere, doing some reading, writing some music and forgetting about my personal defeat. Upon arrIval, I had not only traded the big city for a small town, but the Downtown L.A. skyline for the majestic, snowcapped Sierra Nevadas, and the roar of urbanity for the whisper of the wind.

I took a walk across town, which took but 15 minutes, and saw a pretty little creek, flowing eastward from the Sierras. Where I'm from, creeks don't exist anymore, so this was an exotic sight. The water was cold, clean and crystal-clear. I walked down to the creek bed and dipped my hands in the stream, as the soothing rush of the water calmed my soul. I walked alongside the creek several hundred more yards, until I reached a barbed-wire fence and "no trespassing" signs. I wondered where it led to.

And then it hit me.

Independence Creek, flowing through Independence, CA. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

The creek was Independence Creek, one of many in the Owens Valley. Traditionally, it fed right into the Owens River, which emptied into Owens Lake. But that all changed 100 years ago when the Los Angeles Aqueduct was built, and intercepted all that lovely creek water descending gracefully from the Sierras. Yes, that's the water ends up in my faucet.

The creek was just one way the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power gets its H2O from the Owens Valley. Even more controversial is the groundwater pumping that have sucked local aquifers dry and turned a once-fertile farmland into an alkaline wasteland. Decades before Manzanar, located just south of Independence, was a World War II-era internment camp for Japanese Americans, it was an abundant apple orchard -- hence the name.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct, just east of Independence, CA. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

The aqueduct begins some 10 miles north of Independence, east of the town of Aberdeen, where the man-made channel gratuitously diverts most of the Owens River water flow, leaving but a relative trickle for the rest of the natural river. It flows by gravity towards the Mojave Desert, where it rides the rest of the way encased in pipe through the Antelope Valley and on to its terminus in Sylmar.

As for the Owens River, it meanders southward and with is Sierra creek flows cut off, it largely peters out north of Owens Lake, now a desiccated basin susceptible to severe dust storms that frequently provide air quality hazards to residents of nearby Lone Pine and other nearby towns.

Even bottled water drinkers harvest Owens Valley water: The company CG Roxane runs a Crystal Geyser bottling plant in Olancha, at the southern end of the valley -- ironically adjacent to the Owens dry lake bed, where it obtains its water from an underground source below Olancha Peak for the Southwestern U.S. market.

Much has been written and said in the past century about the California Water Wars between the DWP and the Owens Valley locals. Anything the DWP does to the Inyo County area still makes headlines.

Through hanging out at local eateries and attending social events such as Independence's annual Fruitcake Festival just prior to Christmas at the American Legion hall, I had a chance to meet some of the Owens Valley denizens, who have a complicated relationship with the DWP. Many of the residents actually work for the utility agency, and the agency is usually helpful whenever it does anything in the area -- that doesn't involve water.

"The DWP's prime purpose is to get as much water as they can from this valley," said Mary Roper, a resident of Independence. "It is not to protect the environment."

Roper, a retired Inyo County clerk-recorder, also sits on the board of the Owens Valley Committee, a nonprofit citizen's action group dedicated to the protection and awareness of the delicate valley ecosystem.

The California Water Wars are by no means over for the Owens Valley, though the battles wage on in courtrooms these days. It has been a challenge to get the DWP to honor a Long-Term Water Agreement and a 1991 environmental impact report.

"DWP has had to be sued in order to get them to comply," said Roper. "It is like David and Goliath. Little Inyo County doesn't have the money to employ hordes of lawyers."

Nancy Masters, another concerned resident of Independence, describes the DWP as a colonizer, and has likened their relationship with the Owens Valley to the Germans occupying Vichy France in World War II.

"The Owens Valley is a resource colony," Masters said. "A government hundreds of miles away takes control through devious means of your land and water. They take the water...that sustains plants and animals in one of the most unique geographies in the United States."

Daniel Pritchett, a University of California research employee who lives in Bishop, in the valley's northern portion, added, "Owens Valley residents cannot vote in L.A. elections, hence we have no direct control over what happens to over 200,000 acres of the most valuable land in the valley."

A Los Angeles DWP truck is parked at its Independence facility, with the Sierra Nevadas in the background. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

During what was planned as a retreat hundreds of miles from home, even I could not escape the influence of the City of Los Angeles. While taking a walk around the west side of Independence, I happened upon a large DWP facility, with my city's name on it, and a fleet of familiar-looking white utility trucks, each with the L.A. city seal on the door. Every morning at 7 a.m., the trucks scatter throughout the valley, performing aqueduct-related monitoring and maintenance tasks.

World War II didn't seem "real" to me until I visited bombed-out ruins in Germany and The Philippines. I had the same sort of epiphany visiting the Owens Valley. I developed an instant affinity for the place, and suddenly my awareness of community had expanded far beyond just my neighborhood.

My visit was also a life-changing experience. I got to breathe clean air and experience life that's not governed by stoplights. I got to play in the snow and soak in a hot spring. I got to meet and interact with people without having to log on to anything. I got to be out in the proverbial middle of nowhere, and be in constant awe of the sound of silence, and the omnipresent views of the towering Sierra Nevadas. I can only hope that urbanites in the 22nd century and beyond can still experience the same thing.

The challenge of balancing the water needs of millions, which I personally benefit from, with the protection of a tranquil, yet delicate landscape is an admittedly difficult one. But witnessing where my water comes from gave me a whole different perspective. With a new Los Angeles city government taking office this year, can we try to find more innovative, sustainable ways to obtain water? Can we try to harness local stormwater for our own use, rather than merely flush it out to the sea? Can we gradually lower our take from the Owens Valley? It's time to find 21st century solutions to 20th century problems. After 100 years of taking, it's time we owe the Owens Valley something.

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