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Water war pits LA, high Sierra town

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POSTED June 29, 2012 9:12 p.m.

MAMMOTH LAKES . (AP) — Los Angeles and Mammoth Lakes, a small ski town high in the Sierra Nevada, are locked in a court battle over a crucial water source, fueling century-old resentment over the efforts of the metropolis to supply its thirsty millions.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power filed suit in Mono County Superior Court six months ago to gain control of Mammoth Creek. The creek 300 miles north of Los Angeles is the main water supply for Mammoth Lakes.

The town of 7,700 argues that the state for decades has given it the right to 2,760 acre-feet of water a year from the creek that runs through town.

The DWP contends the state lacked authority, and the agency has owned the water since 1905.

According to local officials, the outcome of the dispute could stifle the town, whose livelihood depends largely on the estimated 1.5 million people who drive from Southern California each winter to ski.

If the Mammoth Community Water District loses the case, it would be forced to buy water from the DWP, and that could raise local water rates by at least 100 percent to about $840 a year, an official told the Los Angeles Times (

In a community where 40 percent of the residents are low-income, that could prompt people to move and dissuade new development.

"There are lots of other places for people to go that aren't under the thumb of the DWP," water district board member Tom Cage said.

"Mammoth Lakes would cease to exist" if the DWP wins, added water district manager Greg Norby.

DWP General Manager Ronald O. Nichols countered in a statement Friday that his department "is in no way attempting to deny water to the town of Mammoth Lakes" and is willing to work on a solution. He asserted that in the worst-case scenario, the average Mammoth customers would see monthly water bills increase from about $24 to $35. The same amount of water costs a Los Angeles customer $43 a month, he said.

The battle already has cost the town $300,000 in legal expenses, which it can ill afford. A few years ago, the town flourished as the region had record snowfalls. There was a real estate boom and coffers were full.

But then the snow stopped — and so did the economy. The area's largest employer, Mammoth Mountain ski resort, laid off 70 full-time workers last winter.

Home prices have plunged. The city itself is preparing to file for bankruptcy because it has been ordered to pay $43 million in a breach-of-contract lawsuit brought by a developer.

The town argues that the DWP shouldn't have the right to seek control of its main water supply since it didn't challenge state allocations decades ago.

"Los Angeles never protested any of them," Norby said. "Where the hell was the city 50 years ago?"

Martin Adams, DWP's water project director, said it was not a big issue when Mammoth Lakes was small, but the town added population and a golf course and now diverts an amount of water equal to 1 percent of the supply flowing into an aqueduct from the Eastern Sierra to Los Angeles.

"Every drop counts, and under the city charter we are mandated to protect every drop," Deputy City Attorney Bill Carter said. "The city of Los Angeles does not want to harm Mammoth or its residents."

The Los Angeles utility said it did not press the issue legally until the Mammoth district sought to update a water management plan to allow it to increase water use by 50 percent in the future using the DWP's water source.

"LADWP has been accused of making a 'water grab' but that is simply not the case," Nichols' statement said.

Still, the conflict has fueled old resentments. The region has been prone to massive dust storms since Los Angeles opened an aqueduct in 1913 that drained Owens Lake. More recently, however, the city has agreed to provide some water to parts of the lake, give up some water to maintain levels in Mono Lake and restore a 62-mile stretch of the Lower Owens River.

The Mammoth Lakes water district has started a campaign to stop what it calls a water grab by asking customers to swamp the DWP and Los Angeles city officials with complaints.

"The DWP is a rapacious agency," said Paul Rudder, Mammoth Lakes attorney. "The people of Los Angeles aren't going to shed a lot of tears over a poor little mountain town being stepped on by an elephant."


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