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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Owens Valley Restoration: Part 1

Air Date: Week of

The once mighty Owens River in central California will begin to flow again for the first time in nearly 100 years. Los Angeles is now under court order to restore some of the waterways it has drained dry. Robin White reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

MAN: Gentlemen, today you can walk out that door, turn right, hop a streetcar, and within 25 minutes end up smack in the Pacific Ocean. Now you can swim in it and you can fish in it, but you can't drink it. And you can't irrigate an orange grove with it.

CURWOOD: The water wars of Los Angeles have inspired storytellers for years. From Chinatown to Cadillac Desert, the books and films keep coming. It's not a noble tale. Early in the twentieth century, the growing city of Los Angeles hoodwinked poor Owens Valley farmers into selling their land. What the city really wanted was the water. When they got it, they shipped it across a desert to build their metropolis. Meanwhile, the farmers watched their land turn to sand and sagebrush. But the story has come full-circle. Courts are now forcing L.A. to restore water to communities in Owens Valley that have been dry for almost a century. Robin White has our story.


WHITE: If you take a wide-angle shot, the Owens Valley looks a magnificent place. Running from southeast of Yosemite to just west of Death Valley, it's 100 miles long by 5 miles wide and surrounded by mountains towering up to 14,000 feet.


WHITE: If you zoom in, the valley is not in such good shape.

HILL: Right now, what we're looking at is a highly-fragmented ecosystem.

WHITE: On a windy day out in the sagebrush, river scientist Mark Hill stands in front of a sandy ditch full of broken logs. A tree cemetery that used to be a pond. Part of a network of waterways that meandered through the valley before Los Angeles drained it dry.

HILL: There are bits and pieces which are gone, like this particular spring. And there are other pieces which are isolated into off-channel ponds and lakes, and they have no connection now with the greater ecosystem. They're simply isolated.

WHITE: Mark Hill's been hired by Los Angeles to connect up these fragments and restore water to 65 miles of the Lower Owens River. The plan is to bring the flow up slowly to allow riparian vegetation to recover and anchor the banks of the river. Once the large cottonwoods and willows are re-established, Los Angeles will vary the flows to imitate natural cycles. The city will still export the bulk of Owens Valley water, but what will stay in the river has enormous potential.

HILL: It's going to become a wildlife Mecca. It's the cornerstone of this whole desert plateau ecosystem. Anyone who canoes down this will be like canoeing through the Amazon River.

WHITE: And Mark Hill says even though he's worked on more famous rivers, from the Nile to the Mekong, bringing back the Owens will be the pinnacle of his career. For a river scientist his job here is unusual. He's spent a lot of time driving around, listening to people's concerns. This is a new tactic for Los Angeles. In the past, they've typically run over public opinion in the Owens Valley. In the 1920s and the 1970s, valley residents resorted to bombing the aqueduct to try to get their voices heard. Even today, the community is bitterly divided about L.A.'s control of the area.

HILL: There's this idea that there's eco-psychology, that a fragmented ecosystem results in a fragmented social system. And I think it's what we see here. So it's our hope that when you put the fragments of this ecosystem back together, we also de-fragment the society here a little bit, too.

(Winds fade to band music up and under: "California Dreamin'")

WHITE: It's Thursday night in Bishop, the largest town in the Owens Valley. Tourists and locals sit in deck chairs in the park and the town band tears it up with "California Dreamin'."

(Band music continues)

WHITE: Some say Bishop is frozen in time, that it's never recovered from Los Angeles' aggressive land purchases. At 78, Ray Milovich remembers the time in the 1920s when a Los Angeles agent tried to buy his parents' ranch to get their water rights.

MILOVICH: Mother told them that day, she says, "I don't want to sell. I was raised here, I lived next door, and I've got five kids, and my husband and I built this house together. And I'm going to stay here." And he said, "Well, this door here's going to sell, and this one's going to sell," and went down the list of names. "They're all going to sell. You're going to be here all by yourself." Mom was cleaning sweet corn at the time, had a big butcher knife in her hands. And she looked at him and she said, Mr. Hand, I think was his name, she says, "I told you no before. I'm telling you no again." And she said, "If you don't get off this lot I'm going to cut your damned throat."

WHITE: With memories that strong even 70 years later, some are skeptical about anything Los Angeles tries to do here, even restoring the river.

MILOVICH: That is just a little something to keep your mouth shut, you know, to just keep people happy.

WHITE: You could say it's working. As newer residents move into the area, fewer people remember what Ray Milovich does. Many even think there are benefits to Los Angeles' presence. Carla Schiedlinger has lived here 13 years. She's an environmental activist who helped negotiate the agreement with Los Angeles that brought the Lower Owens River Project into being. Sitting by a pond in her garden, she points out that while the city owns almost all the land in the valley, it allows free public access.

(Running water)

SCHIEDLINGER: You go most anywhere else in the country that has this much open space and you encounter locked gates everywhere. Or you go someplace that has this much water, and it's developed. And we all know that this would be the San Fernando Valley or something equivalent to it if all of the water had stayed here.

WHITE: When Los Angeles exported water from the Owens Valley to build an empire in southern California, it also exported the potential for urban sprawl, crime, toxic industry, and the anomie of big city living.

(Music up and under: "I'm a packing my grip, and I'm living today. 'Cause I'm taking a trip California way. I'm gonna settle down and never move on, and make the San Fernando Valley my home...")

WHITE: While the San Fernando Valley got all the industry and all the people, the Owens Valley was left a rural backwater without a strong economic base. Now the Lower Owens River Project offers some hope.


WHITE: It's Friday, and thousands of L.A. tourists are passing through the Owens Valley to vacations in the mountains. Right on Highway 395 in Bishop, Bruce Klein runs an agency giving economic assistance to low-income families. Klein believes the Lower Owens River Project will be able to capture some of the tourist dollars that now fly by on 395.

KLEIN: With that money will come so much other stuff. Sidewalks. Funding the hospital, which just struggles to exist from year to year. And obviously jobs.

WHITE: For example, young people who typically have to leave the valley to find work could be hired as guides in the recreation industry. Bruce Klein recently had a dream.

(Music up and under)

KLEIN: In my dream I was dressed up like, you know, like a cowboy. And I went and got my Japanese tourists, and welcomed them, and took them on down to my mule-drawn wagon, which I drove down to the river. The re-watered river. And the Japanese tourists get in a lovely nineteenth-century wooden boat, and are rowed down by other folks. And at one point they're even held up by desperados, and the excellent crewmen of the boats drive off the bandits.

(Music up and under)

WHITE: Bruce Klein is not alone in his dreams for the Lower Owens River Project. One resident is planning to lead archaeological tours to some of the prehistoric sites around the valley. Another is mapping out a route to provide mountain biking along the re-watered sections of the river. Bruce Klein says when the Lower Owens River Project comes online in 2002, it could give the area what it's lacked for a long time: a sense of place.

(Music up and under)

WHITE: For Living on Earth, I'm Robin White.



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