ICE Case Studies
Los Angeles is a city located in a semi-arid plain and as a result water has been an i ntegral part of its growth. At the turn of the century the Los Angeles Department of Water Supply formulated plans for the Los Angeles Aqueduct to supply the city with water from the waterways of central California's Owens Valley. By 1924 Owens Lake, deprived of its only water source the Owens River, dried up, which in turn decimated a unique ecosystem. The aqueduct was extended to the Mono Basin in 1941 and diverted the water sources for Mono Lake, a salt lake similar to Owens Lake, into the Los Angeles water system. In 1978 concerned citizens began to realize that the same fate was befalling Mono Lake as had befallen the Owens 50 years earlier, and the Mono Lake Committee was formed. Through a series of lawsuits filed by the committee and the National Audobon Society Mono Lake has been saved. Both of these cases illustrate the environmental consequences of water policy in California, and how this policy has changed (is changing) over the 60 year period Los Angeles has diverted vast quantities of water from these mountain streams and rivers. This case study of the environmental effects of LA's water diversions highlights the larger issue that no longer is water a resource that can be exploited cheaply, but is fast becoming a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.(1)
Due to the fact that the city of Los Angeles is situated in a semi-arid environment, a reliable water source has been the fundamental factor in allowing the city to grow and prosper. The population growth of the city is evidenced in the following table(2):
|1900 Population||1994 Population|
In the early 1900's the city's water supply was at the mercy of inconsistent amounts of rainfall , droughts, and a rapidly decreasing supply of groundwater.(3) For most of the city's citizens it was unthinkable that the water supply was finite, but as early as the 1890's a Los Angeles Water Company employee, Fred Eaton, realized that the city's water supply could not accommodate the rapid population growth.
In light of this future water shortage Eaton began searching for an alternate water source to supplement Los Angeles' water supplies. Eaton and another water company employee, William Mulholland (future director of the Water Company), investigated a number of possible sources in the vicinity of the city.
These were all dismissed as either too small, or were already tied up by water rights claims.(4) In addition, the Kern and Colorado Rivers were available sources, but bringing the water from these rivers to Los Angeles represented a nearly impossible engineering feat.(5) Eaton suggested looking into the Owens Valley, for he had seen the valley's vast water supplies first hand. In addition the valley was attractive for two reasons. The first was its "relative" proximity to Los Angeles. Second, and more importantly, its elevation of 4,000 feet above sea level would allow gravity to be used as the "power" to bring the Owens River to Los Angeles.
The Owens Valley is 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles, and lies between the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the east and the White Mountains on the west. The valley is criss-crossed by a system of mountain streams that feed into the Owens River which terminates (terminated) at Owens Lake. At the turn of the century the residents in the valley were hopeful that the 1902 Federal Reclamation Act would provide the funds necessary to construct an irrigation network to exploit the valley's water and be the foundation of a prosperous agricultural region. The act created the Owens Valley Reclamation Project which was tasked to develop this irrigation system.(7) At this time, most of the land in the valley was either in private hands (farmers and ranchers), or the federal government. More importantly, in terms of water usage, by virtue of owning the land these parties owned the water rights. This was the case because water rights were derived from the "riparian doctrine" of English common law in which these rights ultimately belong to the party that controls the banks of the waterway. An owner can appropriate these rights to another party, but the borrower would always be at the mercy of the owner. In addition to the riparian law there was the "Appropriation Rule", which gave the water rights to senior claimants in the event of a dry year.(8) The consequence of this is that the downstream party would be susceptible to how the water was used above their claim. Due to the fact that the Los Angeles Water Company was a "junior" claimant in the area and did not own a sufficient amount of riparian land, the amount of water available for the city would depend on the water usage in the entire watershed. Eaton and Mulholland felt that this was an unacceptable risk, and needed to ensure a secure water supply. For water policy in general, the consequence of water rights being codified in such a way was that there could not be an agreement based on a conception of the "public interest" (i.e. sharing the water), and the city was forced to buy a majority of the land in the valley.(9)
Fred Eaton knew the value of the water rights in the valley and attempted to convince Mulholland to undertake the aqueduct project, but Mulholland was skeptical of the project's feasibility. In the hopes of profiting from any perspective city water project Eaton began to buy land in the valley.(10) By 1904 the water situation in Los Angeles had become dire enough to convince Mulholland that the Owens Valley was the only logical supplemental source of water.(11) Mulholland developed a plan to bring Owens Valley water 238 miles to Los Angeles through a series of siphons and gravity assisted troughs. Once in the LA area the water would be stored in the natural underground aquifer in the San Fernando Valley, thus eliminating the costs of a reservoir.(12) However, two obstacles were in the way of the Los Angeles Department of Water Supply's aspirations to exploit the valley's water. The first was how to acquire the water rights, and the second was how to scuttle the Owens Valley Reclamation Project.
The first step in bringing Owens Valley water to Los Angeles was the acquisition of the valley's water rights, and a number of individuals in the city focused their energies on making this happen. Most notable among them were Eaton, Mulholland, and a group of wealthy businessmen, known as the "San Fernando Syndicate" (among them were Harrison Otis, the publisher of The Los Angeles Times, and a local developer Henry Huntington).(13) At this time the city faced a financial problem in that it did not have sufficient borrowing power because of a law that restricted a city's debt to 15 percent of its total value.(14) Thus, the city could not issue bonds to raise the necessary funds from the public to pay for the construction costs of the aqueduct, and required purchase of land in the Owens Valley. In practice this meant the city had to expand in order to increase its allowable level of debt. For those at the highest levels of the decision process there was no doubt that the expansion had to come by the annexation of the San Fernando Valley.(15)
At this critical juncture a number of differently motivated interests colluded to push the project forward. Mulholland pushed the project in the "larger interest" of the water future of Los Angeles. However, Mulholland's motivations were not 100 percent innocuous for he deliberately deceived the population of the Owens Valley that only enough water would be taken to satisfy the domestic needs of the city. The residents of the Owens Valley offered a proposal that would give the Reclamation Project access to the water for irrigation purposes. Mulholland rejected the proposal because he felt it would place the city's future claim at risk. In fact the aqueduct plan entailed taking the majority of the water, even if it was to be wasted, so that the city's claim on the water was not endangered. He realized the "extra" water would be needed to supply the future population of the city.(16)
An "unsavory" element in the building of the Los Angeles aqueduct involved the "San Fernando Syndicate" and Fred Eaton. Eaton profited greatly by selling the land he had bought in the valley to the city for an overvalued price.(17) The syndicate group owned much of the San Fernando Valley and planned to use the excess water for agricultural purposes and eventually sell the appreciated land for an extraordinary profit.(18) There is a degree of disagreement over the role of the syndicate as either a "diabolical" cabal, or only a group that united the Los Angeles business community behind supporting the aqueduct.(19) This group was instrumental in pushing the next stage of the project forward. All that was required was the annexation of the San Fernando Valley and the city could, "...have a new tax base, a natural underground storage reservoir, and a legitimate use of its surplus water in one fell swoop."(20)
The first bond issue for the aqueduct was held in September of 1905. In addition, to raising the needed funds, the bond issue was critical to the project as it would convey the city's will to go through with and fund the aqueduct project. In addition Mulholland hoped this vote of confidence would help scuttle the Owens Valley Reclamation Project in Washington, D.C. The bond did not seem likely to pass the city council, because the citizens were opposed to spending money to bring water from 230 miles away, when it appeared that there was a lasting supply in the area. Mulholland knew if the bond issue did not pass the future water prospects for the city would be bleak. To ensure passage of the bond he "manufactured" a drought scare by misrepresenting the rainfall totals, when in fact it was a wetter than normal year.(21) As well, Harrison Otis used his position as the publisher of The Los Angeles Times to heighten the scare by publishing articles and editorials predicting an impending water shortage.
The final obstacle to the aqueduct was how to end the possible competition from the Owens Valley Reclamation Project, and get support from the federal government for the aqueduct. The department needed the cooperation of the U.S. government because portions of the aqueduct would pass through federally owned land. In addition, Mulholland needed federal help because he did not want the federally mandated irrigation project up stream because it could have potentially taken away from the aqueduct's water supply. What he needed was a way to hold up the project without terminating it, so the lands would not be released into the public domain. If this occurred it would necessitate purchasing these lands which would have entailed another bond issue, and that would have been problematic. Mulholland spoke with California Senator Flint who personally spoke with then President Theodore Roosevelt and by doing so Mulholland successfully circumvented the authority of the local directors of the Owens Valley Reclamation Project. In 1907 Roosevelt terminated the project, but more importantly, the lands in the project were held in abeyance and not reintroduced into the public domain for resale.(22) This was a fundamental precedent for water policy in the state, in that the federal government made a decision that water would benefit the domestic needs of the cities over agricultural considerations.(23) This cleared the way for the Los Angeles aqueduct to bring Owens Valley water to Los Angeles for the first time on November 5, 1913.
In the valley the environmental effects of the diversion were felt immediately. The aqueducts intake valve was located 50 miles north of the Owens' outlet into Owens Lake. The diversion of the water left this 50 miles of river completely dry, "...and by 1924 Owens Lake was reduced to a dry alkaline sink."(24) The consequences were severe for this part of the valley for it destroyed a healthy riparian ecosystem and a unique saline lake.(25) Due to its unique combination of a high concentration of minerals, Owens Lake was a thriving habitat for brine shrimp and Alkali Flies that fed on the algae produced in the lake. These organisms comprised the primary food source for migrating waterfowl (such as ducks and honker geese) and nesting California Gulls. The lake once served as a stop-over for millions of water fowl on their journey along the Pacific Flyway.(26) Now the lake is a dusty expanse that poses a health hazard to humans. Airborne particulates are kicked up by the severe winds in the area which violate the standards of the Federal Clean Air Act.(27) In addition to the concerns posed by environmentalists the Naval Weapons Testing Center at China Lake voiced concern that the health hazards would lead to the closing of that facility.(28) The problem became so severe (the area had 12 times the federal standards for particulate matter) that at one time there were plans to release a significant amount of water from the aqueduct to re- hydrate the lake in order to keep the dust down.(29)
Ironically, even before Owens lake was dry, the supply of water coming to Los Angeles was deemed insufficient. A number of factors created the shortage in the water supply that was supposed to last for an eternity. First and foremost, the rate of population growth in the city far outstripped the most outlandish estimates, and to compound this there was a severe drought in the early 1920's. A more illicit factor was that the San Fernando Valley agricultural interests were cultivating water intensive crops in the valley, which was against the intent, if not the letter of the agreed upon domestic only usage of the Owens Valley water.(30) The remaining valley residents favored a "whole sale purchase plan" to buy lands packaged together, the city rejected this because it would have been more expensive and they proceeded on a "piece-meal" buying schedule.(31) The result was a slow decline in the number and size of farms in the valley, and out of frustration they incited the "water wars".(32)
The "water wars" were characterized by a number of instances of sabotage on the aqueduct. These included blowing up portions of the aqueduct, and in 1924 the Alabama Gates intake valve was taken over by armed valley residents. The events that transpired in the wars centered around the issue of reparations for the valley's residents. The residents wanted reparations for the land and loss of income from agricultural losses. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power did not feel this was appropriate, and denied them their request. Throughout the wars there were attempts at moderation between the parties, but a compromise could not be reached.(33)
The "water wars" served to bring attention to the valley, but the increased attention could not stop the inevitable. By 1928 the city owned 90 percent of the water bearing lands in the valley. In effect, what transpired was what the Owens Valley residents had feared all along, that their hopes for a prosperous agricultural region would be sacrificed for agricultural interests closer to Los Angeles. This is exactly what occurred and the valley slowly died as agriculture was no longer possible, which in turn depressed commercial land values and spelled economic ruin for the valley. Many of the residents either moved away or made their living in the tourist industry.(34) The last of the ranches in the valley quit in the 1950's.(35) The way in which the city acquired the water bearing lands with such little regard to the valley residents was based on the fact that it was simply a "business" decision to provide the cheapest water possible to the residents of Los Angeles. To this today there are still bitter memories of how Los Angeles "raped" the Owens Valley.
To quench the city's thirst for additional water, Mulholland looked toward the Colorado River water now accessible due to advancements in engineering techniques. He secured water rights on the Colorado in 1927 when the Metropolitan Water District was created by law.(36) However, Mulholland realized that this water would not be available for many years to come because of the project's extraordinary engineering requirements. The city needed a more immediate source of water and Mulholland looked for it North of the Owens Valley in the Mono Basin. (37) Theoretically the aqueduct could be expanded quite easily to take advantage of the basin's water. Once again the city needed to pass a bond issue in order to expand the system. Coming as close as this bond issue did to the initial purchases of water rights on the Colorado, Mulholland resorted again to threats of a severe drought. (38) By 1941 the Mono extension diverted water from 4 of the 5 feeder creeks of Mono Lake into the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Ironically the MWD Colorado Aqueduct went on line at the same time that the Mono extension started delivering the "interim" supply of water. At this time Los Angeles' water supply was comprised of 62 percent Owens River water and 17 percent from the Mono Basin.(39) An important factor for the building of the Mono extension was that it was not just another supply of water, but a management device as well. In the years between the original aqueduct and the Mono extension the small amount of irrigation still allowed in the valley served as a quasi-storage mechanism.(40) As the farmers were forced out of the valley this was no longer a luxury for the LADWP, and since the aqueduct was a "run-of-the-river" system in which any excess was essentially wasted a means of storage became necessary.(41) A second aqueduct was planned in conjunction with the Mono extension and the Long Valley reservoir to hold more water in the system.(42) What this did was keep the cost down for the LA water consumer because Mono water was cheaper and of higher quality than the MWD water from the Colorado. The water not used by Los Angeles in the MWD system was sold to other communities.(43) What was developing was the economics of water that makes up a large part of this issue. Prior to the opening of the "second LA aqueduct" (essentially running parallel to the first) the rate of reduction of the level of Mono Lake due to evaporated water not being replaced was 1 foot a year. With the opening of the second aqueduct this increased to 1.6 feet per year.(44) From the mid-1970's to 1990 the average exports from the Mono Basin were 83,000 acre feet per year (AFPY).(45) The lake shrank by 22 square miles, halving the volume, and doubling the salinity which moved the ecosystem towards collapse as the organisms were unable to adopt in such a short period of time.(46) Some estimates suggested that if the diversions continued unabated the ecosystem would totally collapse by the year 2000.(47)
Mono Lake's ecosystem is relatively simple, but this does not mean it is unproductive. The food chain begins with the algae that thrives on the saline brine that comprises Mono Lake, and in turn the algae provides the food source for brine shrimp and Alkali Flies (or brine flies).(48) In turn, these two relatively small creatures feed a vast array of waterfowl and bird species that come to the lake. As well as being one of the few remaining stop-overs on the Interior Pacific Flyway, part of the year Mono Lake is home to 85 percent of the California Gull population. The only larger concentration of Gulls in the United States is at the Great Salt Lake.(49) Studies have shown that the salinity of the lake has increased by as much as 10 percent as the volume of the lake has decreased. This put the entire food chain at risk as the photosynthetic rates of the algae were reduced and the reproductive cycles of the brine shrimp and brine flies were retarded.(50) Moreover, the reduction in the water level exposed gull rookeries to predation from coyotes and raccoons. In addition to the ecological damage, the receding waters had exposed the alkali lake bed which in turn led to significant dust storms that created human health hazards similar to those at Owens Dry Lake.
Through a series Water Resources Control Board studies and inter-agency task forces the conclusion was reached that the lake's ecosystem was being adversely affected by the diversions and they should be stopped immediately. In 1989 a California Supreme Court judge ordered the temporary halt to all diversions until the studies were concluded. During this period the LADWP spent $38 million a year in replacing the Mono Basin water with the more expensive water from the Colorado and San Joaquin rivers.(51) After a series of legal defeats for the LADWP, in 1994 they agreed to the board's alterations in their water licenses specifically designed to protect the ecosystem to increase the permanent flows of the creeks.(52) The boards decision mandated a halt to diversions until the lake rose by 3 feet, when this level was reached, LA could take 15,000 AFPY until the lake reached 6,392 feet (a rise of roughly 13 feet). This is expected to take 20 years and when it does the city can increase the take to roughly 30,000 AFPY (or a third of the original diversions).(53) This development has been extremely promising and as of March 1, 1996 the lake's level was 6,380 feet, but once 6,392 is reached it will still be 25 feet below its historic level.(54) For all intents and purposes the lake has been saved and did not suffer the same fate that befell Owens Lake.(55) Needless to say this drastically effects LA's water supply and the water "lost" will be regained through expensive conservation and recycling efforts.(56)
There are significant points of contrast between the treatments of the loss of Owens Lake and the averted loss of Mono Lake. What had transpired in the 60 years between the two issues was a fundamental shift in the goals of water policy and the meaning of water rights. In the 1920's the issue centered around the economic ramifications of what party was to benefit from the water, the Owens Valley farmers or the citizens of Los Angeles. In the Mono lake case the issue was centered around the environmental effects of the water policy, and the change is signified by the LADWP's reaction to the initial uproar over Mono Lake. Whereas in the Owens Lake case the DWP negotiated agreements and paid damages to those with claims to the water, but this same approach did not work with regards to Mono Lake because the issue was no longer purely economic.(57)
The larger ramifications of the Mono Lake decision for California water policy is that an already skewed price rate for water becomes more unbalanced. For example, California city dwellers pay on the average $230 for the same unit of water that costs California's farmers $10.(58) Granted this price difference is due in large part to transportation costs and the fact many farmers have access to their own water on their properties. There have been plans to pay farmers in the San Joaquin Valley to take their polluted fields out of rotation and sell the water they would have used to the state and in turn relieve the pressure on the LADWP due to the lost Mono Basin water.(59) The economic consequences for the LADWP are quite telling. In 1989 LADWP paid $70 acre foot for Mono water, $250 an acre foot for central valley water, and 2,000 an acre foot for desalinating ocean water.(60)
Continent: North America
Region: Western North America
Country: United States
As mentioned earlier, in September of 1994 the California Water Resources Board decided that in order to protect the ecology of Mono Lake the proper lake level was 6,392 feet above sea level (17 feet higher than the lake level at the time of the decision). A major impetus to raise the lake level was the dust problem. If the EPA designated the lake area in violation of the Clean Air Act it would have had to been addressed within 6 years.(61) The LADWP wanted the level to be 15 feet lower, but they did not get their request.(62) The LADWP acquiesced to the boards decision because they faced defeat it they brought the issue to the California courts.(63) The tangible effect was the halting of all diversions for approximately 20 years, and once the mandated level is reached the city can only take 1/3 of the pre-decision 83,000 acre feet per year. The parties have now come to an agreement, but the 1994 decision was based on a 16 year history of litigation.
By 1978 it was evident, as the lake's level became dangerously low, that Mono Lake was quickly heading toward the same fate as Owens Lake.(64) This led to a number of significant events for the protection of the lake. One was the founding by David Gaines of the Mono Lake Committee which would be a major litigant on behalf of the lake in the courts, and the primary engine for raising public awareness of the lake's plight.(65) The second event was the California Department of Water Resources Board created an inter-agency task force that recommended reductions of the city's diversions of the Mono Basin's water.(66) Although this did not have immediate effects the study began to establish evidence of the profound environmental effects the reduction in the lake's level was having.
In 1983 the California Supreme Court ordered that the city had to comply with all environmental standards in its take of the basin's water.(67) The result was that flows were restored to Mono's feeder creeks. In 1984 Rush Creek was restored due to a lawsuit by the Mono Lake Committee, the National Audobon Society and California Trout, inc. Soon after Lee Vining Creek's flow was restored in 1986, and Walker and Parker Creeks' flows were restored in 1990.(68) Ironically, the primary precedent for the courts decisions was not to protect Mono Lake, but was based on the California Fish & Game Code which requires that fish below dams must be kept "in good condition". Hence the flows were restored to protect the riparian ecosystem of the creeks that had been desiccated by the diversions, but these were still insufficient to protect the lake. In 1990 the 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled that flows would have to be reestablished in these creeks to the "historic fisheries" present previously to the 1941 diversion conditions.(69)
In 1989 all diversions were halted by a State Superior Court pending the results of a study of the effects the 6,377 level (a level 40 feet below the historical 6,417 level) had on the lake's ecosystem.(70) The 1989 decision was due in large part to protect the gull colonies. In 1991 the gull population was burgeoning and the level of the lake was 6,375. This level was two feet lower than the mandated level the city wanted the temporary injunction to be lifted, but the request was denied as environmentalists saw the change as a natural "cyclical" phenomenon.(71) In 1991 the court ordered the desired lake level to be 6,390 feet as the minimum lake level required for benign water and air quality.(72) By this time this led to the 1994 decision and completion of the case. In 1989 California Legislature passed AB444 which established $60 million fund for Los Angeles to work on reclamation and conservation projects facilities. The appropriation of this money was intended to directly effect the level of Mono Lake.(73) In addition to this money in 1992 H.R. 429 authorized use of federal money for a project to develop 120,000 AFPY of reclaimed water in Southern California.(74) Plans are being prepared by Los Angeles to be approved by the water resource board to restore the lake's shoreline water habitats.(75) Eventually these, "...restoration goals are targeted toward historical ecological processes by revitalizing species diversity and habitat complexity."(76)
IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap
There were instances of armed conflcit as local ranchers responded by shooting at workers builsing the canal that diverted the Owens River waters. These waters were somewhat restored in in the early 2000s.
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