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The next victim of LA’s insatiable thirst

POSTED July 24, 2012 11:28 p.m.

Want to see the future?
Take a drive over Tioga Pass and head south on Highway 395.

You'll eventual drive into the Owens Valley. A hundred years ago the valley was considered a region with as great an agricultural potential as the San Joaquin Valley.

It isn't a big mystery about what happened.

It was the result of the first major "water conveyance" to feed the unquenchable thirst of Los Angeles. The City of Angels turned Owens Valley into a hell hole by diverting streams in the eastern Sierra that served as the headwaters of the Owens River. They bypassed the river and Owens Lake via the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Owens Lake once had a depth approaching 50 feet.

Within a matter of years after the water started flowing to Los Angeles, Owens Lake started drying up. Eventually it was reduced to 200 square miles of dry lake bed that created such a massive dust problem that it started interfering with training flights out of China Naval Weapons Station of Top Gun fame. Massive bird flocks that once visited the lake for feeding and resting have been reduced to a mere trickle.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power - after years of litigation - finally started to flow some water back into the lake. The shallow flooding of 27 square miles helps control the dust a bit. The three foot depth - a shadow of its once 50-foot depth - has helped bring some birds back.

The water diversion also devastated the Owens Valley economy which, just like the Northern San Joaquin Valley, relied heavily on agriculture.

Why, you might ask, is the Owens Valley of any concern to you?

This week Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to embrace the latest "conveyance" project to benefit the Los Angeles economy. This time it will be at the expense of San Joaquin County and the Delta ecological system.

It is a project that makes high speed rail look like a well thought out process. There is no actual project per se in terms of something you can argue precisely against. Instead it will be developed on the fly kind of like how Los Angeles started destroying the Owens Valley back in 1913. That first water diversion was presented as a one-time thing that wouldn't hurt farming.

History is about to repeat itself.

There are also assurances being made with no scientific backing that taking an excessive amount of Sacramento River water out of the Delta won't impact fish or the ecological system to any degree. Given Los Angeles' track record in the Owens Valley and elsewhere in California when it comes to how they historically procure water there is little chance of that happening.

This is all being done so Los Angeles won't have to have the cleaner Sacramento River water it takes mingle with the less clean San Joaquin River water.

The impact that would have on the Delta in a normal year aside, that seems innocent enough. But once you start diverting water for urban use in a canal, tunnel or what other conveyance the governor might push you've pretty well set up a doomsday scenario for the Delta in the next prolonged drought.

The Delta currently accounts for about two thirds of San Joaquin County's $2 billion crop production. Agriculture is by far the county's largest employer providing 24,100 direct jobs and almost half of many in transportation as well as other fields that benefit from the ripple effect of ag dollars.

The governor can call it what he wants, but a Delta conveyance in any form is simply a Trojan Horse for a Peripheral Canal.

The fight back in 1982 over the Peripheral Canal was seen as a win or die fight for both farming and the environmental movement.

The stakes this time around are even higher.

If you doubt that go for a drive down to Highway 395. With a little luck you'll be able to see the Highway 190 cutoff to Death Valley without a sand storm generated from Owens Lake blocking your view.


This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.

 

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