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Twin Tunnels: Repeat of Owens Valley
Dennis Wyatt

Above June Lake beneath the steep peaks of the Eastern Sierra that some liken to America’s Switzerland due to the handiwork of glaciers there is water seemingly everywhere.

Hike beyond Carson Peak and you are in the headwaters of the Owens River.

Connect with the Pacific Crest Trail and head to the southwest and you’re hiking in the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River.

If you want to know why the Twin Tunnels as well as how we suck the life out of the San Joaquin River are both bad ideas, spend a couple of days wandering the mountains and taking in the endless lakes and streams above June Lake as well as get a handle on how in just one century we have managed to severely deplete what nature has spent thousands of years stockpiling beneath the ground as well as above it.

The Owens River is a classic study of how defying nature on a wholesale scale by virtually draining a watershed to support a much weaker sister such as the Los Angeles River watershed is a suicidal idea. Setting aside the trickery and political deals made behind closed doors for a minute, the real disgrace is how Los Angeles opted not to build a system that would have allowed a large share of the water they commandeered to be used downstream by fish, fauna, as well as man before starting its 419 mile out-of-basin journey to LA. They avoided spending a ton of money treating water they were appropriating out of basin. They also want water to keep flowing as cheaply as possible to LA via a gravity flow system that means the water will never do much of what nature intended before it flows into LA gutters.

The San Joaquin River by contrast for decades had been sucked dry each year long before nature would have turned it into a muddy trickle in late fall by excessive use by those that live within the watershed.

Owens Lake up until a century ago was 23 feet deep in places and covered 108 square miles. Today it is essentially dry while the LA Water & Power Department is under a court order to tame what they created — the largest single source of dust pollution in the country that at times has interfered with commercial flights and forced the curtailment of operations at the Navy air base at China Lake Basin at nearby Ridgecrest.

The California Supreme Court in the late 1980s prevented LA from killing off Mono Lake as well. Before that decision, the Mono Lake Basin was well on its way to becoming a carbon copy of the ecological and economic disaster LA’s thirst foisted upon the Owens Valley.

Now most of the water from Yost Lake above June Lake at 9,000 plus feet flows eventually into Mono Lake sustaining nature and man along the way. In years when the level of Mono Lake exceeds a certain elevation, water flows from Grant Lake below Yost Lake into a “Single Tunnel” — a pipe that serves as part of the Owens River Aqueduct system — and makes its way to LA faucets.

Prior to the court ruling the diversions from creeks that normally fed Mono Lake went into the “tunnel” and headed south raising havoc with the natural fisheries and undermining the sustainability of the Mono Lake Basin.

The Twin Tunnel plan for the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta will do the same thing but on a much larger scale. As designed, it would deny fish, habitat, and even farms a beneficial use of the water as it flows south by diverting it into massive pipes before it enters the Delta and dumping it into the California Aqueduct after burrowing beneath the West Coast’s largest delta on the Pacific Flyway that millions of migrating birds rely on.

When man works in concert with other man as well as nature water is used over and over again as it journeys to the ocean. Much of what is taken out of the river is returned in the form of irrigation runoff and treated wastewater. There are issues associated with both water returns but they are treatable. The bottom line is by taking water out of the channels that support fisheries and others even for just the segment that passes through the Delta, you set the stage for a repeat of what LA did to the Owens River watershed particularly as it pertains to Owens Valley. 

If LA is worried about stability of water supply based on earthquake concerns, there are other options ranging from a much shorter tunnel near the pumps at Tracy to building a dike system on the western edge of the Delta.

Those options don’t allow LA to suck water from the Sacramento River watershed without it being “dirtied” flowing through the Delta ecological system, threatened by court orders involving fish flows, or drought.

But give the devil his due. Per capita water use for LA Water & Power customers is now at 59.3 gallons per day despite the population it serves being a million more since the contentious drought of 1975-76. Compare that to 60.1 gallons per person for Manteca. The numbers are based on August 2017 state water use data.

What passes as water policy coming out of Sacramento these days is myopic and not holistic. It is akin to having almost a dozen agencies trying to build a freeway with no common goal or route in mind plus having different objectives for the route’s path while working on separate segments miles apart with no effort made to make sure they will ever flow effectively together.

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.