Quenching The Thirst Of a Century
Los Angeles May Restore River It Diverted Years Ago
By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; Page A01
BIG PINE, Calif. -- Looking out from the banks of the river that once ran through this rugged valley beside the Sierra Nevada range, Mike Prather sees only an ugly heap of stumps, weeds and dried mud. The water is long gone.
It has been that way for nearly a century, ever since Los Angeles began quenching its insatiable thirst by buying up nearly all the land and building what some folks here still bitterly call "the big straw," the 233-mile aqueduct that swiped the local water supply and gave the metropolis its life.
The Owens River was the first casualty of that monumental engineering feat, sucked dry and all but left for dead. Until now.
Prather, a retired science teacher and environmental activist in the Owens Valley, no longer comes to the river to lament its loss. He comes to savor a remarkable new plot twist in the ceaseless water wars of the West: Los Angeles soon may have no choice but to restore the river's old flow.
"There's a lot of people here who feel that this battle was lost long ago," Prather said as he pointed to the parched riverbed. "They completely accept the omnipotence of L.A. and think it's always going to get whatever water it wants, no matter what you do. But I think we're about to show them that's not true."
To revive the river, which curves for more than 60 miles through the Owens Valley, Los Angeles would have to modify the aqueduct and give up millions of gallons of its precious water -- an amount equivalent to what it sends about 40,000 families in the city every year.
That momentous step would create an environmental restoration project like none other in the West, launched at a time when the arid region is urbanizing at dizzying speed and getting ever more desperate to find new sources of water.
For residents in the valley, it would also be a historic milestone, a sign that Los Angeles is at last atoning for what they regard as its original sin.
"This has been a long time coming," said Greg James, the director of the water department in Inyo County, which includes the Owens Valley. "There aren't many places in the West where 65 miles of a river have been dried out, and now 100 years later there's an opportunity to get it back. I'm optimistic it's going to happen. But some people here are still skeptical of anything L.A. says."
"Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water."
-- John Huston as Noah Cross, in the film "Chinatown."
The year was 1904. Los Angeles was booming. Its population had doubled since the turn of the century to about 200,000 residents, and its leaders saw only gold in more growth. But the city needed more water, badly.
Fred Eaton, a former mayor, had an audacious idea: Why not get it from the Eastern Sierra, about 250 miles to the north, using an aqueduct that relied on gravity to send water from the high country down to the Los Angeles basin?
It was just crazy enough to work. Eaton and his associates slyly began buying farms and ranchland in the Owens Valley, which stretches for 100 miles. The deals included water rights. No one said anything about an aqueduct.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company