U.S. Water News Online
INDEPENDENCE, Calif. -- State officials and
environmentalists are urging a judge to sanction the Los Angeles
Department of Water and Power for falling behind in its efforts to
restore a 62-mile stretch of the Lower Owens River.
The restoration project, the largest habitat rehabilitation effort
proposed in the West, aims to create a healthy ecosystem in a river
channel that now is mostly dry, except for the occasional puddle.
The plan calls for a flowing river to support a fishery and
extensive wetlands for shorebirds and ducks. The effort is already
two years behind schedule.
Inyo County Superior Court Judge Lee Cooper is considering the
lawsuit, which accuses the DWP of placing a higher priority on saving
money and water than on meeting its legal obligations.
Plaintiffs contend the DWP is not complying with an earlier court
order to have water flowing again in the riverbed by Sept. 5.
Although the deadline is months away, the officials and
environmentalists argue that sanctions are warranted now because the
DWP has acknowledged in court papers that it does not expect to meet
Sanctions could include a fine or limiting the DWP's pumping of
groundwater in the Owens Valley. Such limits would be worth about
$5.7 million a year, roughly the amount Los Angeles saves annually
because of delays in launching the Lower Owens River Project.
The Eastern Sierra is the city's cheapest source of water,
according to plaintiffs' documents. Some water now going into the Los
Angeles Aqueduct would be diverted into the riverbed and then sent
back to the aqueduct after it completed its run of the river.
Sanctions against the DWP "will make delay less profitable for the
city," state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said in a court memorandum. "If
this water is not flowing in the river by Sept. 5, as the city
promised, it should not be flowing in the city's aqueduct. The city
should not profit from violating the court's order."
Lockyer's comments were recently added to a lawsuit brought a year
ago against the DWP by the California Department of Fish and Game,
the California State Lands Commission, the Sierra Club and the Owens
DWP officials insist that the request for sanctions is premature.
"This is litigation over a deadline that has not yet been missed,"
said Jonathan Diamond, a spokesman for the city attorney's office,
which is representing the DWP.
District officials say they have met all legal requirements and
timelines in restoring the nearly dry waterway running from the
aqueduct just south of Big Pine to the Owens Lake delta.
DWP officials concede the project is delayed, but blame a variety
of agencies for the problem. In court documents, for example, DWP
officials criticized a federal participant in the project, the
Environmental Protection Agency, for being slow to prepare an
environmental impact statement.
"We are anxious to get this moving forward, but we are still
waiting on the EPA to issue its environmental impact statement,"
Diamond said. "Right now, we can't say when that EPA report will
As a result, the DWP is asking the judge to extend the Sept. 5
deadline and dismiss the current lawsuit, he said.
Critics point to a history of missed deadlines as evidence that
the DWP is not all that concerned about a project that would cost an
estimated $39 million to launch.
In 1997, the DWP agreed to restore water flow in the river by
mid-2003. That deadline was pushed back to 2004.
Then, under a court order to do so, the DWP promised to commence
flows by Sept. 5, 2005. Now, the DWP says it isn't sure when it will
The legal dispute underlines acrimony that has boiled in the Owens
Valley since the early 1900s, when the city had agents pose as
farmers and ranchers to buy land and water rights in the Owens
Valley, then began building an aqueduct to slake the thirst of the
growing metropolis more than 200 miles to the south.
In 1913, the Lower Owens River was reduced to a trickle after the
city began diverting its water into a second system, the Los Angeles
Aqueduct, for delivery in the San Fernando Valley.
The aqueducts dried up Owens Lake, drained natural springs that
fed fish hatcheries and farmlands, and helped turn the valley into a
The Lower Owens River Project was conceived in 1991 as mitigation
for excessive groundwater pumping by the DWP that destroyed 100 acres
of habitat in the Owens Valley from 1970 to 1990.
In addition to providing a haven for wildlife, the restored river
would enhance recreational activities and boost the Owens Valley's
Now, with the project again mired in court battles, botanist and
Sierra Club activist Mark Bagley's vision of densely forested
riverbanks in the shadows of the Eastern Sierra's soaring peaks has
been put on a back burner.
Striding along the dusty river channel recently, Bagley said,
"Restoring this river is a solemn promise DWP made to the citizens of
Owens Valley and California.
"You'd think the mayor of Los Angeles could push the DWP along to
meet its commitment and keep from getting sued," he said. "Instead,
the city continues to drag its feet."
Mayor James K. Hahn was unavailable for comment. But Deputy Mayor
Doane Liu said that "when the mayor toured the Owens Valley last
year, he gave his personal commitment that the city of Los Angeles
would fulfill all of our obligations in protecting the environment.
"He is anxious to get started on the implementation of a project
that will have lasting benefits for generations to come."
Liu said, "The mayor has asked DWP General Manager Ron Deaton to
tour the valley and meet with local officials and immediately address
any issues that may be preventing this project from moving forward."
In any case, the plaintiffs have no intention of backing down.
"We're more interested in what the city does than what it says it
will do," Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for Lockyer, said in an
"So far, the city has not met any deadlines and has utterly failed
to meet its obligations. Its track record is dismal."
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