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2 tunnels away from being next Owens Valley

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POSTED July 2, 2014 12:04 a.m.

SAM MACK MEADOW, Inyo County – You can’t get much closer to the source of a large chunk of Los Angeles’ water than Sam Mack Meadow at 11,040 feet just over a mile from the Palisade Glacier – the largest in the Sierra.

For centuries the water melting from the snowpack and glaciers that dot the Palisade Range on the eastern slope of the Range of Light have fed the streams that give life to 3,300 square miles of the arid Owens Valley.

Today the water that bubbles out of mountain crevices supplied by high elevation runoff more likely than not ends up flowing through faucets 216 air miles away. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power gets 48 percent of its water by diverting it from Owens Valley aquifers, streams, towns, lakes, and farms.

Manteca is some 166 miles as the eagle flies from Sam Mack Meadow. Not a drop of the clear water that rushes through the alpine meadow before making its first of many falls down granite to reach the Owens River reaches Manteca.

Even so, fate may deal Manteca and much of the San Joaquin Valley in and around the Delta a blow almost identical to that of Inyo and Mono counties.

The flow of water out of the Owens River Basin and to the Los Angeles Basin starting 101 years set the stage for the wanton destruction in a matter of three generations of Owens Lake that once covered 188 square miles. Today it is the largest source of dust pollution in the United States with a court-order pipe system “sprinkling” the lake bottom that was once under as much as 50 feet of water with a small part of the water that LA diverts.

The fine people of LA have been screaming bloody murder about the court-ordered expense that will soar past the $1.9 billion mark and consumes 95,000 acre feet of water annually – the equivalent of the City of San Francisco’s use – in order to create wetlands to combat the dust. LA ratepayers believe it is unfair they are paying the equivalent of seven weeks of water charges to pay for the dust control project. A ratepayers advocacy group is enraged that 95,000 acre feet of quality drinking water is being “wasted.” The DWP itself is incensed that they are covering 100 percent of the dust control cost claiming Mother Nature is responsible for much of the damage. Mother Nature didn’t make Owens Lake disappear in less than 60 years. LA’s insatiable thirst for water did.

The DWP believes they are, as one regulator put it, the big “fish on the hook” to solve “the Owen Valley’s problems”. They point out they are forking over the equivalent of $100,000 for each of Inyo County’s 18,500 residents to control the dust that at times has interfered with jet traffic tens of thousands of feet in the air. They also like to point out how they are helping the Inyo economy by creating recreation opportunities used by many LA residents who spend money locally. Forget the fact LA has essentially decimated Owens Valley agriculture. It’s pastures and fields at the end of the 19th century were said to have rivaled the productivity and fertileness of the San Joaquin Valley. Keep that in mind.

Farther to the north Mono Lake has been spared a similar fate. The lake level started dropping in 1941 when LA got its straw into the streams that fed what is viewed as one of the oldest lakes in North America. Within 41 years, the lake level had dropped 165 feet before a court order was put in place. In about another 20 feet or so of elevation gain, LA will be allowed to resume diverting water.

LA is taking more than  just surface water. They own 344,000 acres or almost a third of the entire Owens Valley. In recent years they have started pumping water from aquifers – the same source of water for farms and those 18,500 Inyo County residents LA labors so hard to marginalize.

It is clear that more of the Owens Valley has slipped into the grip of the desert since groundwater started being pumped and diverted to LA swimming pools.

It is clear that LA bought up land legally despite being secretive about their purpose. It is also true that California’s incessant monkeying with nature to move massive amounts of water from wet regions to arid lands such as LA created the state we now have in terms of gleaming cities and bountiful fields.

But what is also clear and true is no one had an inkling back in 1913 the massive environmental and economic damage one water basin would suffer just so another water basin could thrive and grow beyond its natural means.

This brings us to Gov. Jerry Brown’s Twin Tunnels proposal or Peripheral Canal 2.0. Robbing the Delta of the Sacramento River water before it flows into the California Aqueduct near Tracy has all the potential to make the northern San Joaquin Valley a kissing cousin of the Owens Valley with the added bonus of making the Delta a candidate to undergo a similar transformation that Owens Lake suffered.

Yet the tunnels will not increase one drop of water for LA, or so we are told.

No one 101 years ago in their wildest imagination thought an “open tunnel” and buried pipes from the Owens Valley to LA would create the nation’s largest source of dust, destroy a lake, cripple another, and decimate the agricultural production of a once fertile valley.

We are just two $24 billion tunnels away from being the next Owens Valley.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.

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