CALIFORNIAA 33-year legal saga that has delayed one of the most ambitious river restorations ever attempted in California is over, thanks to a last-minute lawsuit by the state’s attorney general.
Inyo County’s Lower Owens River has been dry since 1913, when it was diverted to supply water to Los Angeles, 250 miles to the south. However, California’s 1970 Environmental Quality Act gave the county and environmental groups leverage to mount a legal challenge and eventually negotiate an out-of-court settlement, which requires the L.A. Department of Water and Power to restore a 62-mile stretch of the river. Plans for the project, finalized in 1997, include specific deadlines for implementation (HCN, 2/17/97: Who wins when a river returns?) — but six years later, the city had met none of them.
In early December, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer joined the Owens Valley Committee, a local activist group, and the Sierra Club in a lawsuit demanding the Department of Water and Power complete the project. On Dec. 17, less than two weeks later, L.A. agreed to a new set of court-ordered deadlines.
"I think that the attorney general’s lawsuit really got L.A.’s attention," says Mike Prather of the Owens Valley Committee. "When L.A. saw that we suddenly had comparable legal resources, they really got the wheels turning."
Under the settlement, the water will be returned to the river by fall 2005, with an eventual base flow of 40 cubic feet per second — about a quarter of the river’s natural peak levels, according to the Inyo County Water Department.
"Now, with the court enforcing all timetables, this project can finally get moving," says Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office. "The Owens Valley and the community have been working and waiting long enough to see progress."