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Course Correction: L.A.'s Water Future Lies in Its Past

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Stevens Ditch | Special Collections, Honnold/Mudd Library of The Claremont Colleges

Thumbing through Fred Eaton's faded scrapbook, now tucked away in Special Collections at the Claremont College's Honnold/Mudd Library, is to recall the incredible ambition that drove Los Angeles to wrest water out of the Owens Valley and channel it more than 200 miles south. This bounteous flow would help power the city's growth for much of the subsequent century, while relegating the eastern California high desert to a backwater.

Eaton, who had served as city engineer and mayor, led this November 1905 fact-finding mission to the valley, which included city-council representatives, civic leaders, and journalists. For the past several years, agents acting on their own and for the city, had been buying up land and the water rights they contained, and Eaton was among those snapping up local properties. So he was in the sketchy position of cheerleading a process of which he was a prime beneficiary.

No surprise, then, that the photographic evidence of this tour, and the daily diary that accompanies it, is almost entirely framed around the creeks, rivers, and springs they encountered. An image of a very full Stevens Ditch, for instance, was accompanied with this text: it "carried 600 inches one half now owned by the city." (Here, "inch" refers to the archaic term--a miner's inch--which once was used to measure streamflow; a single inch meant that the discharge was an estimated 9 gallons per minute).

Black Rock Springs | Special Collections, Honnold/Mudd Library of The Claremont Colleges

The next day, the group visited the 50,000 acre Rickey Ranch, which Eaton recently had sold to the city, and which was nearly "20 miles long, reaching across the entire valley." Among its resources was the prodigious Black Rock Springs, shot in full flood, which produced an estimated 1000 inches. The property, Eaton observed, "practically controls the entire water situation of the valley."

The interplay between the scrapbook's pictures and words reinforces the idea of capture, which these boosters then underscored in their nightly congratulatory speeches. Eaton for one lauded "the enviable position in which the city of Los Angeles was so fortunately placed in having control of such a magnificent water supply."

Touting this gospel of wet wealth became their self-appointed task on returning to Southern California, for they concluded that only the Owens Valley could provide the large volume of water they believed necessary to slake Los Angeles' deepening thirst. Its growth took precedence to that of the towns they visited--Lone Pine, Independence, and Big Pine; its boom depended on their bust.

In time, Los Angeles would as well grab control of a goodly portion of the Colorado River's icy flow; and then snatch a major share of precipitation falling on the northern Sierras. To move these disparate waters into Southern California, the city and later the state spent billions to construct conduits, pumps, and aqueducts. The name of the local agency charged with developing these resources could not have been more exact: the Department of Water and Power.

Yet this bureau's clout, long tied to the operating presumption that the water of other peoples and places was there for the taking, and confirmed in the city's ownership of nearly 4% of Inyo County (home to the Owens River watershed), is not what it once was.

Over the years, a series of state agreements and federal compacts has circumscribed the freewheeling exploitation that once defined Los Angeles' water policy, an imperial mien that nonetheless remains embedded in popular culture. Rural communities throughout the Great Basin, for instance, buck themselves up as they struggle to stop an ambitious Las Vegas from siphoning their groundwater supplies by vowing to "Remember Owens Valley."

These grassroots activists should take note of recent federal-court findings that serve as an additional breakpoint in LA's water history. Since 2007, Federal Judge Oliver W. Wanger has issued a series of decisions about the deleterious impact that pumping water from the north to the south, and for Central Valley irrigators, has had on the state's fisheries.

Although he has been inconsistent in his support of the Endangered Species Act--oddly asserting that Congress never intended to "elevate species protection over the health and safety of humans"; and although last December he threw out portions of the biological opinion guiding the calculations that the U. S Fish and Wildlife Service had been using to restrict pumping, Wanger has not (yet) reversed the larger logic: that dwindling fish populations have and will trigger limits on the amount of water flowing to SoCal cities and rural agribusiness.

Special Collections, Honnold/Mudd Library of The Claremont Colleges

His decisions, even if equivocal and disjointed, already have impelled some communities and agencies to plan for a time when what they have taken as normal--a massive stream of water pouring into the region from elsewhere--will no longer be the norm. Santa Monica, for one, is rapidly pursuing water independence. In February, with the opening of a $60M water-treatment plant, which treats once-polluted water pumped out of local wellfields, it announced that it was able to supply 8 million gallons a day, approximately two-thirds of the city's daily consumption. Declared Mayor Richard Bloom: "Given the risks and uncertainty of the California water supply the only reasonable response for Santa Monica is to reduce its use of an imported water supply."

Others have come to the same conclusion. Alert to the significance of the Wanger decisions, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD), a regional groundwater management agency, has started reducing its dependence on water imports. With its Alamitos Barrier Recycled Water Project, for instance, WRD will "replace the barrier's imported potable water demand with a recycled water supply, thereby improving water supply sustainability within the Southern California region." Cutting imports from 64% to 20% is a sign that the agency is succeeding in its campaign for Water Independence Now (WIN).

That there is such a strategy, complete with snappy acronym, speaks to the growing catchet of such projects across the region--the city of Long Beach, the San Gabriel Valley Water Replenishment Project, and the counties of Orange and San Diego are among those entities spending considerable money to shore up, recharge, and/or protect groundwater systems. By these innovative efforts, Southern California is reclaiming local sources of potable water after a century of neglect.

However precedent setting these reclamation projects may be, they are also echoes of a stay-at-home choice that was equally available long ago when Fred Eaton and the power elite schemed to take ownership of the distant Sierran watershed.

Consider the actions that residents of Pomona, La Verne, Claremont, and Upland took to defend their rights against You Know Who. In 1909, they formed the Pomona Valley Protective Association, charging it to manage and conserve local groundwater. Its mission has been fulfilled through its "spreading grounds": the PVPA controls upwards of 1000 acres of the alluvial fan that flows off Mt. Baldy and through San Antonio canyon into the valley below. A system of ponds, dikes, and channels flushes water across this rocky terrain so that it can percolate into the Canyon and Upper Claremont Heights basins. Although the member communities are no longer water independent, their century-long commitment to sustaining these aquifers puts them in an unusual position to achieve greater independence in the future.

This historic approach to water-resource management represents the road Los Angeles refused to take. But in light of the battles in Judge Wanger's courtroom and the natural limits we are reaching, it seems clear that looking closer to home for our water supplies is the path to which we must return.

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