Chips Barry, who heads the Denver Water Department, says his major responsibility is not the acquisition of new water supplies. "It's to hang on to what we've got in the face of instream flow and endangered species and interstate compacts."
The pressure on water developers to give back
water they've taken out of streams and rivers has hit hardest in
California, where Rep. George Miller, D.-Calif., engineered a
reform of the Central Valley Project in the 1992 Congress. But
reform is not just coming out of Washington, D.C.
Eighty years ago, William Mulholland, the head
of the Los Angeles Water and Power Department, welcomed the first
water flows into Los Angeles from the distant Owens River with the
words: "There it is. Take it."
His words ushered
in an era of water empire-building by Los Angeles, the first major
desert city. The 300-mile-long diversion was hailed by the Los
Angeles Times and copied by other cities in the West.
On July 2, 1994, the Times again put the Owens
River on its front page, and again quoted Mulholland. But this time
there was irony in the words that followed: "On Friday, the fish
took some of it back."
The article described how
the Owens River Gorge in California's eastern Sierra Mountains,
which had been dry for 40 years, now has both water and 10,000 tiny
brown trout. The trout are swimming there because Los Angeles,
under pressure to repair damage done decades ago, and dramatized
most famously in the movie Chinatown, has turned some water back
into the gorge section of the river.
again flowing there because of a persistent legal fight by Inyo
County, the rural area dried up by Los Angeles, and because of a
gradual change in the values of the water
Jim Wickser, an official with the
city's Department of Water and Power, told the Times, "... societal
values have changed and our department shifted gears."
But critics say that so far LA has only shifted
into second gear. Darryl Wong, a fishery biologist with the state,
said, "It's not over. There are 50 miles of the lower Owens River
that are still dry."
The diversion of water from
the gorge passes through a penstock and then is returned to the
river some 20 miles downstream, so reducing the diversion won't
cost LA water, although it will lose 1 percent of its total
But at nearby Mono Lake, also in the
eastern Sierra, changes ordered by the State Water Resources
Control Board will cost Los Angeles significant amounts of water.
The Sept. 29, 1994, Times reported that Los Angeles can take no
water at all from Mono Lake until the lake's level has risen two
feet above the current elevation. And then LA can take no more than
12,000 acre-feet a year until the lake has risen 16 feet higher
than it is today. Even after that elevation is reached, LA will be
limited to 30,800 acre-feet a year, which is about one-third of its
The water board acted because
the city's diversions have caused the lake to drop 26 feet,
endangering wildlife. LA announced that it would not appeal the
board's action, ending 16 years of litigation brought by
Daniel Beard, head of the
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said, "All parties have come to the
realization that many serious environmental mistakes were made when
we constructed the water projects upon which our urban and
agricultural sectors now depend.
surprisingly, some have been reluctant to confront those mistakes.
We almost lost Mono Lake because of that reluctance."