It’s still Chinatown

How Blue Was My Valley
Owens Valley–plundered and protected by L.A.–needs a new form of stewardship.
By D.J. Waldie
D.J. Waldie’s most recent book is “Real City: Downtown Los Angeles Inside/Out,” in collaboration with photographer Marissa Roth.

August 1, 2004

The wind in summer whips up clouds of alkali dust from the dry bed of Owens Lake. Sometimes, the grit and salt flecks spin into dust devils that skim toward the lakeshore as if grabbed by big, invisible hands. The dry lake bed and its devils are bitter memorials to what the Department of Water and Power has taken from the Owens Valley since 1913 — hundreds of billions of gallons of water sent 233 miles south to Los Angeles.

The Owens Valley wasn’t the first victim of the city’s harsh regime of water extraction. But it is the recognized setting of the city’s original sin of greed. It’s where some men did the ugly things that had to be done at the start of the 20th century to win the great game of civic prestige and personal wealth. Other cities lost — notably Santa Monica and Long Beach — because Los Angeles men had the skill to turn their indifferent real estate into a great metropolis with the water they took from the valley.

Ironically, the crowded square miles of Los Angeles greened by Owens Valley water are almost exactly duplicated by the vacant square miles of valley watershed the DWP bought between 1905 and 1935. The city’s alter ego looks nothing like Los Angeles, however. Most of the valley is as near to wilderness as any place in California can be.

The 20,000 people who live in the Owens Valley today and graze their cattle on city-owned land, fish in city-owned streams and hunt in city-owned foothills are protective of the extraordinary environment the DWP gave them, even as they share a common resentment that L.A. raped the valley before making it the place they love and depend on for jobs in agriculture, tourism and the outdoor recreation industry.

A plan, first floated three years ago by former DWP General Manager David Freeman, to put the DWP’s 320,000 acres under a “no development” conservation easement was revived last month by two city councilmen, who got a quick civics lesson from DWP commission President Dominick Rubalcava. The unaccountable system that makes the DWP master of the Owens Valley, he reminded them, also bars the City Council from directing how the department uses its land.

A couple of weeks later, Mayor James K. Hahn recycled nearly the same plan as “his vision” for the valley. That misstep earned Hahn another lesson from Rubalcava. Under DWP pressure and with wary valley residents looking on, the mayor wobbled on the issue of a conservancy to hold the valley watershed in trust. Instead, Hahn said he wanted to hear from everyone before making up his mind — yet again. He went to the valley; met with ranchers, environmentalists, Native Americans and Inyo County officials; and heard what you might expect — that nostalgia, suspicion, sheer cussedness and self-interest in the valley (and at DWP headquarters) have probably killed the idea of a conservancy.

Ranchers and alfalfa growers are comfortable with the arrangements they’ve made to lease large parts of the city-owned watershed. Residents of Bishop and Lone Pine favor an undomesticated valley that protects their access to fishing and hunting and keeps softer Southern Californians out. Developers of the few privately owned parcels in the valley are happy with the escalating prices they get for trophy lots with a view of Crowley Lake. Inyo County officials depend on the taxes and fees paid by the DWP for much of their $30-million annual budget. They prefer the DWP — the devil they know — to an independent valley conservancy or a state agency in charge of development.

The DWP has its own reasons for fighting to remain the sole guarantor of the valley’s open space. There’s all that water for Los Angeles, of course, and all those pristine views of it. The DWP controls 50 miles of lakefront and 525 miles of streams in a valley where some lots of less than an acre on private land already sell for half a million dollars. The financially strapped DWP knows the valley intimately — and knows some of it can be profitably remade as luxury housing and eco-resorts with only a light cost in decreased water production.

The DWP has spent the last century managing thirst in Los Angeles and anger in the Owens Valley by controlling access to the land. There would be rough justice today in putting the valley permanently beyond the reach of the department’s land-use authority. But despite the risks for the valley and the city, letting the DWP manage the valley a while longer may not be such a bad idea.

A lot of California has already passed beyond the choices that ordinary Californians might make and into the hands of unelected quasi-governments like the state conservancy proposed for the Owens Valley. The eight conservancies overseen by the state Resources Agency, for example, have small governing boards — all appointed. Who they represent is fixed by the Legislature, and who gets appointed reflects the political deals made, sometimes decades ago, to pacify the conflicts from which the conservancies were born.

In 2001, a legislative analyst’s office report recognized the value of state conservancies in preserving open space, but the LAO was troubled by the failure of the Legislature to evaluate where the conservancies were going with their hundreds of millions of dollars in state bond funding. The LAO saw the mission of conservancies changing but found there was no mechanism for voter participation or including new stakeholders in the decision-making process. Conservancies got too little direction from their enabling legislation and inherited clumsy and costly systems of management from the state. Conservancies, the LAO found, were politically charismatic but their single-mindedness might not always be the best tool to achieve the state’s environmental goals. The LAO also worried that there was no broad vision articulated by Californians for coordinating the future of conservancies, state parks and other protected lands.

No one knows how many other trusts are managed by nonprofit organizations and local public agencies, although one estimate put the amount of land under their control at more than 2.3 million acres. There could be more than 200 conservancies in the state, each with a level of public oversight that ranges from none to very little.

The imperial DWP is only marginally more accountable to Los Angeles voters, but that margin is increasing and the pace of change should accelerate. Los Angeles is struggling toward a political system in which the decisions of the technocrats at the DWP would be checked by an invigorated City Council, examined in the meetings of neighborhood councils and ultimately subject to voter approval. That government — a city with a human face — is yet to be, but its first stirrings, like the recent revolt of the neighborhood councils over water-rate increases, are a hopeful sign. More reform of the city charter is needed; the perfect place to begin is with the DWP.

“The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past,” William Faulkner wrote. The unquiet past in the Owens Valley is also present. Many conservationists have read the story of the city and the valley — and believed the myths too — and want to build an absolute wall around the DWP’s 500 square miles to protect the landscape and redress, on their terms, the original sin of Los Angeles. Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, offered some New Age morality in support of a trust that would put the valley “in perpetuity” beyond the choices of both city and valley voters: A conservancy would reverse “all that karma” William Mulholland had acquired when he took the valley’s water.

The burden of the past in the valley isn’t just for a few environmentalists, however. This vulnerable land, which is the city’s essential water source and its greatest material asset, needs more — not fewer — hands to hold it. A valley for water, jobs, recreation homes and the revenue to pay the half-billion-dollar cost of environmental remediation of the Owens River and Owens Lake needs something more flexible and more accountable than another special-purpose conservancy with a board of political appointees. The valley needs a new form of stewardship that makes water ratepayers and environmentalists, Native Americans and the DWP, ranchers and rock climbers equal stakeholders in the process. It could come, in time, perhaps through a new kind of joint land-use authority with a board of directors elected by valley and city voters under a proportional system that would balance competing city interests and valley suspicions.

That would be a better end to the story, an ending in which the people who need the Owens Valley and depend on it finally appear as participants in the story and as protectors of the valley.

Rather than look for retribution through a conservancy, let the DWP collect more bad karma for a while longer; it deserves it.

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