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LADWP's Owens Valley Flood 'Emergency' is an Answered Prayer for the Paiute and Shoshone

Evening in the Owens Valley, California | Image: Albert Bierstadt
Water in the Owens Valley is nothing new. Evening in the Owens Valley, California (1871) | Image: Albert Bierstadt

On March 20, the Mayor of Los Angeles issued an emergency declaration for the Owens Valley as a response to the record snowpack that fell upon the Sierra Nevada mountain range. With snowpack levels in the Eastern Sierra registering at 241 percent of normal, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is expecting one of the largest snowpack runoffs from the watershed in the over 100-year history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. To put this into perspective, up to 1 million acre-feet of water, about twice the amount of water that residents of Los Angeles consume in a year, is anticipated to flow through the aqueduct system from the Owens Valley.

But this flooding phenomenon is not a new concept in the Owens Valley. In fact, the original inhabitants of the valley rightfully called this place Payahüünadü — the place of flowing water. My people are the Nüümü (Paiute) and Newe (Shoshone) and our traditional water management systems, including flood irrigation and the manipulation and spreading of water across the valley, were instrumental in helping our ecosystem bloom since time immemorial. Our elders and stories tell us of times when our entire valley consisted of wetlands, marshlands, and swamps — making for an abundance of crops, animals, hunting and fishing grounds, and simply put: a good life.

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There is a reason that the Paiute and Shoshone people call the wetlands the Mother Earth’s liver. They provide valuable functions that no other ecosystem can, including their ability to naturally purify and improve water quality, provide flood protection and maintain surface water flow during dry periods, recharge groundwater, and provide habitats for fish and wildlife.

The restoration and protection of these wetlands throughout the Owens Valley is necessary not only for the indigenous people and the local residents of the valley, but for the entire ecosystem. Indigenous knowledge of wetlands management provides an important basis for natural resource management, which has evolved over several hundred generations of people living on, and managing custodial responsibility for, the environment.

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LADWP reasons that protection measures are needed to prevent flood waters from ending up in the natural end point in the valley: Owens Lake. Once one of the largest lakes in California, the Owens Lake was reduced to a dry lake after LADWP built the Los Angeles Aqueduct and began diverting the surface water 200 miles south to Los Angeles. This caused the area to endure one of the worst dust pollution problems in the country.

Because of subsequent lawsuits that mandated LADWP to mitigate the dust pollution under the Clean Water Act, they have since “invested” $1.1 billion in dust mitigation infrastructure on Owens Lake. They now claim that the excess runoff threatens to damage these dust control areas, hence the Emergency Proclamation.

There is a lot of distrust of LADWP in the Owens Valley and for good reason. Many have heard about the California Water Wars that tells the story of LADWP sneakily buying-up and monopolizing land and water rights in the valley. For my people, who once were the only people living in the valley, a land exchange between the federal government and LADWP (to the benefit of LADWP) left the numerous tribes in the valley on some of the smallest land bases in the country — away from their traditional homes, water resources, sacred sites, and hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds.

My advice to the Mayor and LADWP is this: slow down, listen, and rethink your strategy. The indigenous people of the valley have managed the water systems for centuries; perhaps it’s time to look to them for some solutions.

Paiute Irrigation Ditch
One of the Paiute irrigation ditches used for centuries before European settlement | Photo: Clarissa Wei

To proclaim an emergency to prevent water from going into the lake you caused to go dry as opposed to revitalizing an ecosystem is contrary to progress. After a century of monopolization and exploitation, forcibly removing people from their homelands, and destroying riparian areas and precious groundwater basins, it’s time to put consciousness above the economic value of an outdated, imperialistic scheme.

We have been here in Payahüünadü for 15,000 years. Yet we have been silenced and excluded from the decision making table regarding water and land use. Consequently, we are struggling to secure a place for our young people and future generations to live. They deserve to see the kind of world that our elders and ancestors lived in; to see those wetlands, our traditional irrigation systems, and the abundance of wildlife and crops in the lush valley that we call home.

What our people need is a restoration — of our voice, lands, waters, and sacred sites. We ask for access to the places that we, and our ancestors before us, have been stewards of for centuries. Our role as stewards comes from knowledge that has been handed down from generation to generation. What we ask for is simple: access to the waters and lands that we have watched over since time immemorial. This is vital not only for our cultural identity, but also for the survival of our people.

Our people will be at the shores of our riverbeds, joyfully and eagerly welcoming the arrival of our paya (water) back into the Payahüünadü.

Banner: A dust devil moves across the floor of the Owens Valley. Photo: Elaine With Grey Cats, some rights reserved

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition.