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Know the West

On Friday, the fish took some of it back


Note: This article is a sidebar to the essay titled "Ripples grow when a dam dies"

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.

Water is 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 department.

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 hydropower.

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 accustomed take.

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 environmentalists.

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.

"Not surprisingly, some have been reluctant to confront those mistakes. We almost lost Mono Lake because of that reluctance."