L.A. Sues Mammoth—Eastern Sierra Water War Rekindles
Friday's action came after the Mammoth Community Water District approved a creek fishery management
|January 9, 2012 - The City of Los Angeles has sued the water district in Mammoth Lakes, asserting that L.A. has owned the water in Mammoth Creek since 1905 and that Mammoth residents don't have the legal right to drink it, thus reopening a nasty dispute with citizens in the distant Eastern Sierra region.|
|City News Service|
|Eagle Rock Patch|
|The City of Los Angeles has sued the water district in Mammoth Lakes, asserting that L.A. has owned the water in Mammoth Creek since 1905 and that Mammoth residents don't have the legal right to drink it, thus reopening a nasty dispute with citizens in the distant Eastern Sierra region.|
The L.A. action on Friday, January 6, came after the Mammoth Community Water District approved a creek fishery management plan last month, which calls for taking Mammoth Creek water to supply a 50 percent increase in Mammoth Lakes water use by 2030.
The town currently uses creek water for domestic use for its estimated 7,900 residents, and the tens of thousands of skiers and other recreation seekers who stay there. But L.A. says the trout management plan approved by the Mammoth water district after 15 years of study counts on water owned by the citizens of the City of Angeles.
"The citizens of Los Angeles depend on flows from Mammoth Creek, and the L.A. Department of Water and Power has a responsibility for protecting the city's water rights," said DWP Director of Operations Marty Adams, in a written statement. "Taking water from Mammoth Creek reduces the volume of water to which Los Angeles has prior rights, that can be delivered to the citizens of Los Angeles, directly translating to our customers who pay our water rates."
The lawsuit has newly incensed some residents of the small resort town, on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada 300 miles away from L.A. Resentment still lingers from Los Angeles water czar William Mulholland's purchase of nearly all of the private land in Mono and Inyo counties, to get the water rights, in the early 1900s.
The new lawsuit claims that L.A. owns the creek water because it filed legal claims as it prepared to build the Los Angeles Aqueduct downstream from Mammoth Lakes on the Owens River in 1905. The DWP also bought a ranch along Mammoth Creek in 1967, and took possession of the ranch's water rights that date back to 1893.
Mammoth Lakes has used creek water for residents and funseekers since 1947, but the lawsuit claims this is a temporary use granted by the state Water Board that is not as valid as L.A.'s prior claims.
The DWP has offered to temporarily hold off pursuing the lawsuit if the Mammoth Community Water District negotiates a solution acceptable to L.A., Adams said.
Mammoth Lakes water manager Greg Norby told KSRW Sierra Wave television in Bishop that the L.A. claim was based on an erroneous reading of California law. He said the state's water codes do not address temporary diversions, as claimed by L.A., and that Mammoth Lakes has proper state permits to use water from the creek.
"It's a little late (for L.A.) to take that position on our rights developed over 50 years," he told the Bishop television station. And he said Mammoth Lakes is at risk of losing its only reliable water supply if L.A. prevails.
But Norby expressed hope that negotiations by his agency with L.A. outside the courtroom will result in a "non-adversarial resolution," KSRW reported.
The DWP acknowledged that many of the water users in Mammoth Lakes are Los Angeles residents who own vacation homes, or who are staying at the town's mountain resorts.
"We understand that the goal of the Town of Mammoth Lakes to develop to its full potential and provide much-needed winter and summer recreational opportunities for millions of visitors, and a stable economic base and lifestyle for local residents," the DWP's Adams said in a prepared statement.
Eastern Sierra residents, reflecting a historical dislike and distrust of the urban giant 300 miles to the south, told the station that L.A. should go elsewhere for water.
"What are they going to do, build another aqueduct like they did in 1912 to suck the Owens Valley dry?" asked Rick O'Brien to KSRW. "If the LADWP would build a desalinization plant and use the never-ending supply of sea water from the Pacific Ocean, they wouldn't need to take water from the Eastern Sierra."
The DWP pointed out that each L.A. resident uses just 122 gallons of water per day, the lowest per capita usage of any big U.S. city, thanks to aggressive DWP conservation efforts. Despite having grown by 1 million residents since 1970, the city consumes less water now than it did 40 years ago.
Water from Mammoth Creek and other streams tumbling out of the High Sierra flows into the Owens River, which is diverted into a pair of aqueducts near Bishop that channel the water via gravity across 223 miles of desert to Los Angeles. The aquaduct ends in the San Fernando Valley in Granada Hills at the Los Angeles Reservoir. From there it is pumped via pipline to different parts of the city.
The aqueduct's water provided developers with the resources to quickly develop the San Fernando Valley, including North Hollywood, through World War II. Before the aquaduct, Angelenos got their water from the Los Angeles River, according to the Los Angeles Times Ditchtenders, or zanjeros, carried water from the river to water wheels which lifted the water for gravity flow into homes and fields. William Mulholland got his start as a zanjero.
Although the water diversion was hailed as a wonder of engineering when the first water flowed in 1913, the canals allowed L.A. to buy up nearly all the water from the farms and ranches in what once was a verdant agricultural valley.
Tensions between L.A. and the Eastern Sierra have been tense ever since, and resulted in more than one dynamiting of the aqueduct in the 1920s. L.A. built a second, parallel aqueduct in 1970 and began pumping groundwater from the Eastern Sierra, drying up wells and springs and further angering residents there.
News of the L.A. lawsuit was first reported by KSRW television in Bishop.