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The LA sequel to Owens Valley: The Tunnel to destroy Northern SJ Valley
owens pipe
Sections of the pipeline sending water to Los Angeles flow alongside the Owens River where the water was taken from so LA can make electric power such as through the Owens River Gorge.

It wasn’t my finest moment.

I was hiking the Owens River Gorge in mid-July. Usually that would be as smart as planting your hands on a stove burner turned to high.

Severe thunderstorms in the eastern Sierra above Bishop prompted a last minute change in plans. And given that the temperature in the Owens Valley that day was predicted to be 20 degrees cooler than the previous day’s high it was the perfect opportunity to take a hike in an area where the heat makes it a seriously insane proposition between June and September.

Before Los Angeles got is claws into Owens Valley to divert snowmelt and draw down the high desert water tables to essentially bleed Eastern California and stunt its economic growth all so the City of Angels could prosper beyond the means of its water basin, the gorge carried water tapped into by farmers and ranchers working the land.

That was in the 1920s. Three decades later LA decided it needed more cheap power to fuel its growth. So they built Long Valley Dam at the head of the gorge. That led to the river running dry before it reached the lower gorge for a 38-year period desecrating a unique riparian ecological system.

Things changed in 1991. The courts — after working through countless lawsuits — finally were able to right a hideous wrong of yet another example of environmental and economic destruction on sacrificial regions that came about from Sacramento colluding with urban Southern California interests to ignore laws and undermine historic water rights.

I was hiking with my nephew Garrison in the gorge created when the Long Valley Caldera exploded 760,000 in a super volcano eruption that sent ash deep into what today is Canada and almost to the Mississippi River.

Ahead of us was a log crossing of the river. As Garrison neared it just a few steps ahead of me, I warned him to look out for the largest bunch of poison oak I had ever seen just to the right. Ten second later I lost my footing and fell backwards into the bed of poison oak. Thanks to the terrain and the lack of anything “safe” to grab or push my way to my feet, I had to resort to doing a snow angel of sorts as I struggled to get back up.

We were close to the end of the gorge that was about a half mile ahead. I wanted to get to the CVS Drug Store in Bishop as quickly as I could to minimize the fallout from my full body plant in the poison oak as we still had to walk back to the Escape three miles away. We decided to scramble out of the gorge.

Once we got back on even ground, I was than preoccupied with making sure I resisted the urge to scratch myself.

What helped me keep my mind off the poison oak was a massive above ground pipeline that flowed from the Long Valley Dam on is way south to take water out of the basin more than 230 miles away to fill Hollywood swimming pools. You could literally hear the water gurgling through the steel pipe as gravity did its job.

Thanks to the Tecnu skin cleanser that removes poison oak oils I bought at CVS — the best $18 I ever spent for eight ounces of anything — the urge to itch went away by the next day and I had no scarring.

The same can’t be said about the Owens Valley and what the Los Angeles Water and Power Department has done to it although the gorge today has bounced back while much of the river south to Owens Lake that LA sucked dry via water diversions is far from what it once was.

Today the forces led by the LA-based Metropolitan Water District working in concert with Sacramento are forging ahead with a sequel to the rape of the Owens Valley that will scar the Northern San Joaquin Valley damaging ecological systems, devastating the economy, and laying waste to wide swaths of agriculture. Just like a century ago with engineers that were working for the interests of Los Angeles in collision with state government, backers of the myopic tunnel to divert water from the Delta and deliver it to the pumps near Tracy for its forced journey southward are claiming there will be no major impacts by taking water out of the basin before it flows through the Delta.

The only difference this time is instead of a peripheral canal or an above ground pipe everyone can see, LA’s dirty little deed carried off with the assistance of Sacramento will be buried out of sight in a tunnel. That means the second tunnel will be in place to rob the Delta of fresh water before it is diverted for out-of-basin water demands. The other is the pipeline that runs beneath Modesto and the width of the Northern San Joaquin Valley to spirit away water behind O’Shaughnessy Dam that inundated Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park with congressional blessing to service the faucets of San Francisco and other Bay Area cities.

During droughts and court ordered flows for fishing, the Hetch Hetchy water in that pipeline is never affected. That will certainly be the same with the myopic tunnel and water flows to Los Angeles that is being advanced by dangling the Trojan horse of water reliability in the event a major earthquake in the Bay Area collapses Delta levees.

The threat to Manteca, Lathrop, Tracy, Modesto, Merced, Turlock, Ripon, Oakdale, and the rest of the Northern San Joaquin Valley has to do with salinity and minimum water flows.

The water going south before it leaves the Sacramento River basin does what it has for centuries flowing through the Delta to support life and sustain farming. Before the water is diverted out of the basin at the Tracy pumps at the head of the California Aqueduct it helps keep salt water at bay. This is especially critical in drought years when salt water intrusion both above ground and in aquifers pushes eastward.

Salt intrusion can render soil infertile for growing crops and require extremely expensive desalination for domestic water supplies.

The only way the water bypassing the Delta via the myopic tunnel can be replaced is from the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. Barely a trickle of  water from the rest of the San Joaquin River Basin reaches where the San Joaquin River joins up with the Merced River.

Given the need to address the ramification of diverting Sacramento River water from the Delta with replacement water isn’t even close to being seriously addressed in environmental scoping with a bent to justify the project, Los Angeles will end up making the Northern San Joaquin Valley that depends on the flows of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced as the next regional victim of its never ending thirst.

When the damage starts the state won’t stop flows into the tunnel but will look toward the Northern San Joaquin Valley they can rape so LA gets what it always wants — more water to sustain growth they couldn’t otherwise support.

If reliability is an issue than upgrading the levees, exploring a seawall, a much shorter tunnel as some have proposed, or a combination thereof does less potential damage to the Delta.

Those will never be considered because what LA wants — along with big corporate farms they have joined forces with in the Southern San Joaquin Valley — is to assure water supplies they receive are never diluted by drought or court orders involving fish flows.