Author Archives: Mike Prather

Lone Pine’s ‘lone pine’ Is Dead

dead treeThe village of Lone Pine up in the Owens Valley is staring at a dead pine tree. This tree greets each visitor heading to the trailheads for Mt. Whitney and Cottonwood. Flying out of town after a monster breakfast, visitors don’t realize the story repeated over and again for more than 100 years here in Inyo. This pine has been growing on the Ruiz Ditch for decades. The ditch carried scarce surface water year-round off Lone Pine Creek down to a small village horse pasture. It carried too much water for such a small pasture. That was a problem.

In 2003 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, representing the citizens of LA up in Inyo and Mono counties, unilaterally turned off the Ruiz Ditch, after all it’s their water, and since then has allowed only flows during our traditional irrigation season April 1 to September 30. Water for stock is provided through a hose bib into a trough. That ditch is dry October to through March. It is intermittent now during the irrigation season. The LADWP cutoff and three years of drought have killed that pine tree. No attempt at compromise by DWP prior to drying the ditch. No effort to be neighborly from our absentee landlord. Rolled once again. Bald on top of my head from all the pats from ‘the man’. It’s all good. Gettin’ better.DWP bldg

I want to live in a village where this action would cause elected leaders and unelected, even self-appointed leaders to stir, to rise up and organize all of us. Such a dream. I am naive to the point of being ludicrous, but I can’t stop. Going to the grave with much unfinished business. Recruiting the young folks to get off the couch and live with purpose – an examined life. We are the ‘Little Town With Lots of Charm’ the sign says. What’s with that?

Inyo has BIG problems with LA and we have had success fighting The City. Our mighty Inyo County Water Department with its staff of 9 has stood toe to toe against a bully – the folks in the 15 floor building on ‘Hope’ Street in Los Angeles. We’ve said, occasionally, “We want to live on our feet rather than die on our knees” (not my words, but such perfect ones). Ruiz Ditch is not a BIG problem, but it is a stick in my eye every damn time I drive home up Whitney Portal Road into the Hills. It is a part of the death by 1,000 cuts.

West entrance to City Hall in LA

West entrance to City Hall in LA

One Hundred Mules Walking







Mike on Jake the mule

On Friday, October 18, I grunted up into the saddle of a huge mule named Jake and began Day One of a 240 mile ride from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. I can’t confirm that Jake was named after Jake Gettes, Jack Nicholson’s character in the classic film Chinatown, but there was a certain wild-eye look to him. ‘One Hundred Mules Walking’ is a moving art installation created by Metabolic Studio’s Lauren Bon. One hundred mules will ride the length of the 1913 Los Angeles Aqueduct from The Intake north of Independence all the way south to Los Angeles. Follow the water downhill in a conversation about the next 100 years.


Mule string crossing The Intake 1391463_10202305928228373_287266834_nEastern Sierra packers

Riding along with me were three members of Mayor Garcetti’s staff who deal with the LA Department of Water and Power. I chair the Inyo County Water Commission so this was like Christmas – a captive audience. The narrative ranged from Owens Lake dust to LADWP solar on undisturbed desert  land in our valley to the Inyo County/LA Longterm Water Agreement to the future survival of our valley’s small towns.. In between the Deputy Mayors suffered through me singing every cowboy/western song that I knew. “One Hundred Mules Walking’ was art meeting bureaucracy and much more.


Flag of the ‘One Hundred Mules Walking to Los Angeles’

Day Two didn’t include me and my ass, not Jake, told me that was fine. The ten mule strings moved on to Manzanar National Historic Site where the United States of America interned 10,000 Japanese-Americans and ‘aliens’ during WWII. Manzanar was the largest community in the Owens Valley in a very sad way. This ride is through the 1860’s ethnic cleansing of the Owens Valley Paiute by the US Calvary, through the complete destruction of Lone Pine in the 1872 Earthquake. There are more stories than can be told, but I just kept on talking. I hope all other riders do converse for the entire 27 days.

Day Three – the moving conversation rode into Lone Pine and trouble.








Mt. Whitney behing the mule

Not surprising, I guess, was the Saturday LA Times page one story that editorialized ‘One Hundred Mules Walking’ as a silly, locally unnoticed mule ride created by a rich woman and her bought-off non-profit followers. There was even a quote by the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce Director saying no one was paying any attention at all. Having a quote-hungry diva as our town’s face and voice is an embarrassment. And having a similar writer for the LA Times helped editorialize an article about an event that actually brings much value to our Owens Valley and to the ‘conversation’ as a whole. We are talking history, water, economic survival here!

The road into Lone Pine from my home in the alabama Hills was packed with locals in cars and the back of pickups. I saw many visitors to the valley who just happened to meet the mules. I waded through through the Lion’s Club BBQ and a quilt raffle for scholarships. I dodged the Lone Pine High School cheerleaders belting out their ‘Movin’ Mules’ cheer. It seemed obvious to me that Lone Pine was fully engaged in this 100 mule thing. What’s up with the LATimes and our Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce lady.?


Inyo County Supervisor Matt Kingsley


Remote video and audio of the ride to LA – solar, of course.

Join in the conversation. Opinions are welcome although facts are more valued. What are the questions? What are the solutions?





LADWP Owens Valley Solar ‘Ranch’ – with horses?


Clay slick and Inyo Mountains Wilderness.

This relatively undisturbed desert habitat in our Owens Valley is scheduled to be covered with one million solar panels. A small loss in the larger picture, but a sad total loss for those two square miles. Inyo County’s comments from their previous Board of Supervisors suggested building a viewing platform for visitors? You might as well be viewing headstones.


Rose Springs corner notched point

In 2004 a proposed conservation easement on LADWP lands in Inyo and Mono counties was opposed by most Owens Valley residents and eventual the LA City Council. Los Angeles repeatedly referred to the land as ‘assets’ and the locals saw a DWP conspiracy in every shadow. If there had been a conservation easement accepted there would be no solar project proposal today. Mary Austin summed it up when she left the valley over 100 years ago, “These people don’t have enough sense to save themselves.”


Vegetated aeolian dunes resting on ancient Owens Lake bed.



Enough Water

The 1991 Inyo County/ Los Angeles Long-term Groundwater Agreement attempted to settle the partys’ litigation over water management and environmental destruction in the Owens Valley.  In 1969 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) finished its Second LA Aqueduct (SLAA) and massive groundwater pumping commenced in 1970. Before that year was over the extent of the environmental violence was clearly felt even by the Inyo County Board of Supervisors. Fish Springs with 20,000 acre-feet/year flow (AF/yr) – extinct, Blackrock Springs – extinct, the springfield surrounding Independence – dead, water tables in all of the LADWP well fields dropped below the rooting zones of plant communities. Inyo County sued Los Angeles using the brand new California Environmental Act (CEQA).

No Fish Spgs

A one-horse rural county such as Inyo has shallow pockets. It is an understatement to describe this environmental justice struggle as a David versus Goliath battle. Inyo County is slightly larger than Connecticut with nearly 18,000 residents – just the LADWP has 10,000 employees. Los Angeles, although much smaller in areal extent, has nearly 4 million people. The courts agreed with Inyo that Los Angeles must write and adequate Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for their groundwater pumping project. LA had come for surface water with the 1913 aqueduct. Now they had come back with the 1969 Second Aqueduct to be filled with groundwater.

dead cow

Dead cow on Owens Lake

The Owens Valley is unique in California for being green in the summer instead of crispy golden brown. Groundwater close to the surface, supplying the root zone, supports phreatophytic plants explaining this anomaly. In the 1960’s LADWP quantified the volume of groundwater under the Owens River flood plain that was being taken up by plants and transpired. They came up 200,000 AF/yr of water being ‘wasted. Analysis was made showing that phreatophytes would die back, but they would be replaced by ‘other plants’. No problem.

south of W104 Jan22_2011 - Version 2

Such thinking and behavior by LADWP in the Owens Valley was the opening of the ‘second water war’. Since those years there has been a non-stopped effort by local environmental groups such as the Owens Valley Committee, Sierra Club, local chapter of CNPS and Inyo County to mitigate damage and stop addition assault. some water is back in 62 miles of the Lower Owens River and there are additionally various enhancements and mitigations. However,multiple issues are in still dispute between Inyo and LA. It will take years to work out disputes and details of possible solutions. Something as fundamental as flaws in the 1991 Long-term Groundwater Agreement and technical manual must be fixed in order to avoid endless conflicts in the future.



The Cherry Orchard

My  mom and aunt always scolded me, “You can’t stop progress”, when I would complain about our town changing. I was 19 and in college so I knew a lot about the way things should be. Since I was a liberal I whined.

Mom and Aunt Mary grew up on a dairy during the Depression. Their lives were simple, but rich. Complaining was left for real reasons. It was not accepted lightly. My noise about increasing traffic and crowding was not tolerated.


Since those years Highway 12 has widened to four lanes. The near lane is twenty feet from the middle of the living room. When the nearby stoplight turns green it sounds like a motor speedway just outside the front door. There is no garden out there – no lawn with an apple tree. Instead there are four traffic lans and a concrete median strip.

This valley was quite rural when I grew up. It was one ridge over from town. Grandpa donated the land for the firehouse. He forgave debt during the FDR years and even signed over small plots of land to friends.

The family grocery and feed store were also swallowed by the Highway 12 widening. They are gone now. That’s progress. When I visit my aunt and uncle I hear sounds coming up from the prune orchard. I see invisible sadness in their faces. The sounds aren’t axes chopping Chekhov’s cherry orchard. They are nail guns.



cattailI worked along the river, mostly in the cool water cutting tules, from 7AM to noon. Wonderful workout. Song sparrows sang to us from the bull rushes and common nighthawks flew overhead calling their nasal ‘peeeent’. There was help from the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, the Inyo County Water Department and the Bishop Paiute Tribe clearing choke points on approximately 1/4 mile of channel. We might have all 1.5 miles of channel cleared to the Keeler Bridge by winter. We need to cultivate paddlers, birders and fishers. They become constituents.

The Lower Owens River was rewatered on December 6, 2006. The ‘agreed to’ date promised by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was June of 2003. Oh well, “Litigation is cheaper than water”, I’ve been told across the table more than once. Frustration with delay is what you experience. Sometimes a stick in the eye.

Established flows are 40 cubic feet per second (cfs) for the year round base flow with up to 200 cfs for the mimicked spring runoff flow seen in average years. This is an artificial river system; it lacks the natural functions of 2000 cfs flows to scour tules and spread willow and cottonwood seed up onto the benches. Cattails and bull rush crowd the channel and at times choke it off. It is an unnatural system that requires human intervention in order to reach ecological goals. Nothing new, this is what exists on virtually every watershed in California.

So I slide into the water this morning to cut cattails and bull rush with a rice knife designed thousands of years ago. Have faith in the ergonomics.. I will provide the artificial intervention necessary. I will scour the tules that melting snow once cut away each spring. It is a hot day, but the water is cool and the work with others who care about this river is enjoyable. “It’s not always meetings”, I tell people who profess the defense of Mother Nature. “Sometimes you need to go out and get dirty”, I share.  Stewardship. “Where are all of these champions today? Working, not working, disengaged? A Nature deficit? A reality deficit?

Personally, I am committed to the 62 miles of the rewatered Lower Owens River. I need no motivation. I spent decades in meetings, settlement conferences and court rooms. This river, with all of its imperfections, is far better than the dry channel, filled with scattered tumbleweed and dust.    “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good”, someone said – old advice, good advice.


My daughter Phoebe and Jake celebrating the first water in the river in 83 years.




Mother Tree

The honey mesquite (Prosopsis juliflora) sinks deep roots into desert soils in search of water. You won’t find them in Owens Valley – unless you come to my yard. Back in the 1970’s when I was living in Death Valley, I dug some neighborhood soil in order to plant some pots. Soon after watering, young honey mesquite seedlings began to appear. Yet in eight years living in DVNM I never saw a seedling in the wild. I assumed young plants were consumed by jack rabbits, round-tailed ground squirrels and cottontails. I reasoned mesquites propagated vegetatively.

However, being a curious naturalist, I transplanted a seedling into a container where it grew to four feet high by the time I moved to Owens Valley. In 1981 I planted it next to the south wall of our home in the Alabama Hills. Today it is a multi-trunked, twenty foot high tree that shades our yard. It creates that indoor-but-outdoor feeling you have in the mesquite bosques of the Southwest. I listen for chachalacas and look for green jays. Bewick’s wren and Say’s phoebes are more easily found so far.

Hundreds of pods form on our tree each summer. These pods are food for Timbisha people. The stumps made mortars for pounding the pods into meal for ‘ovi’ (porridge). “Don’t eat the seeds. They’ll give you the runs,” one of my students once warned me. The mother tree also provides hard wood for fire and tools. It makes shade.

Mesquite seedlings geminate in the yard. The tree must be self-pollinating since there are no others around. I found that they can be transplanted and that pods can be planted in pots to grow new trees. My mesquite bosque dream looks  possible. I now have a dozen young trees going into the yard and I visualize that indoor-but-outdoor feeling. I look forward to more Wilson’s warblers and roadrunners while I wait for the chachalacas.

Hand rail made from our homegrown mesquite.