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.
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.