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Topic: Culture & Communities     Department: Letters

Learning lessons in Owens Valley

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In Kim Todd's essay "Walking Woman," she used the re-watering of the lower Owens River as a reason to visit Owens Valley and rhapsodize about Mary Austin (HCN, 5/24/10). In the re-watering, she finds a hopeful lesson that the truism of environmental victories being temporary and defeats being permanent may not always be true.

Had Todd investigated further, she might have learned a different and more useful lesson. Contrary to Todd's assertion, the Owens River isn't close to being "full again." The re-watering requires flows of only 40 cubic feet per second, not nearly enough to fill the river. The channel often appears full at Big Pine, where Todd viewed it, because it is upstream of the Los Angeles Aqueduct intake and also conveys pumped groundwater and water from Mono Basin for export to Los Angeles.

The river re-watering resulted from 19 years of litigation between Inyo County and Los Angeles, followed by six more years of negotiations. It then took three lawsuits and an Inyo County judge who imposed $5,000 per day fines on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) to actually get the 40 cfs flowing.

All this work was necessary just to implement the limited re-watering, an environmental Band-Aid. The life-threatening hemorrhage, in the form of DWP's excessive groundwater withdrawals, remains untreated. Water tables in many areas in Owens Valley have yet to fully recover from the draw-downs of the late 1980s.

It's important to celebrate victories, but it's also important to see them in perspective. By inspiring earnest but uninformed essays such as Todd's, the somewhat-more-than-a-trickle in the channel of the lower Owens River benefits DWP's reputation and its consultants' bank accounts more than it benefits Owens Valley. For more information, please visit,, or view the videos (case study #5) at

Daniel Pritchett, Conservation Chair
Bristlecone Chapter, California Native Plant Society, Bishop, California

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