Dammed L.A. Aqueduct Blocks Owens Valley Water for the First Time

Monday, May 18, 2015

Did the New York Times just blame California’s dry times on Governor Jerry Brown’s dad? Well, maybe not entirely.

The lead story in Sunday’s print edition, headlined “Brown’s Arid California, Thanks Partly to His Father,” gives two-term Democratic Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown (1959-1967) grief for creating “a sprawling water network to feed the explosion of agriculture and development in the dry reaches of central and Southern California.” But the story makes it clear there were many paths to the state’s dire straights.

One of them was along the 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct, built in 1913 to tap the Owens River far to the north. In a wet year, Los Angeles can rely on the controversial water supply from the Owens Valley to fill 30% of its needs. Even in the driest of years, there has always been something.

Until now.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has blocked what little Eastern Sierra Nevada runoff there is from coming to L.A., distributing the remaining water among its mandated obligations and other recipients. Runoff this year is expected to be 36% of the average over the last 50 years, according to KPCC. The previous historical low was 50%, recorded last year, 1961 and 1990.  

The Sheet, a “weekly newspaper of general circulation covering news from Lone Pine to Coleville along the Highway 395 corridor” that parallels the aqueduct, reported last month that the draft 2015-16 Operations Plan of the LADWP indicated the suspension of exported water through September, the first half of the 2015-16 runoff year. But aqueduct manager James Yannotta said it would probably last to November.

The Los Angeles Times said last week that the aqueduct had been dammed. “That's how bad this drought is,” LADWP spokeswoman Amanda Parsons told the newspaper. “We've never kept the water in the valley before.”

Exports of water were already low. The Sheet reported that they were around 60,000-70,000 acre-feet each of the last couple years, compared to an average of 337,000 a year since 1970.

L.A.’s sordid history with Owens Valley, in Inyo County, was famously fictionalized in the 1974 movie “Chinatown.” Agents of Los Angeles, pretending to be otherwise, first bought up property in the area and then used the water rights to feed the newly-constructed Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Owens Lake went dry in a decade. Farmers, ranchers and residents were devastated and the area has been wracked by dust storms and drought ever since. Ensuing court battles have resulted in significant mandated obligations for Los Angeles to provide water to the area.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct was considered at the time of its christening to be the second-greatest engineering feat in history, next to the Panama Canal. When legendary Los Angeles City Water Company Superintendent William Mulholland addressed the crowd in L.A. suburban San Fernando Valley on November 5, 1913, to dedicate the giant public works project he had overseen, he said:

“This rude platform is an altar, and on it we are here consecrating this water supply and dedicating the Aqueduct to you and your children and your children’s children―for all time.”

He turned on the spigot and said, “There it is. Take it.”

Consequently, Los Angeles grew exponentially, as he predicted it would, nurtured by Owens Valley water and the delusional belief that life in a desert can always be green if one wills it so.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

LADWP Slashes Water Allotments (by Katie Vane, The Sheet)

L.A. Getting No Owens Valley Runoff for First Time Since 1913 (by Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times)

Brown’s Arid California, Thanks Partly to His Father (by Adam Nagourney, New York Times)

California Drought: LADWP's Owens Valley Pumping Might Suffer Without Snowpack Runoff (by Molly Peterson, KPCC)

Water Reality Grim for Owens Valley Ranchers (by Deb Murphy, Sierra Wave Media)

Yet Another Truce Declared over Owens Dry Lake (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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