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.
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).
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 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.
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.
My tilting at windmills over the years at Owens Lake has a complex chronology. It takes a long time to tell. Garrison Frost has captured it well in Audubon-CA’s Audublog. To read that complicated story check out the June 20th entry at www.audublog.orgAmerican avocets at Owens Lake – Gail Klett (both photos)
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.