SNWA Water Grab Mirrors Owens Valley Theft
1) Abstract – pg. 2
2) Introduction – pg. 2
3) Geological Background of Owens Lake, River and Valley Ecosystem – pg. 3
4) Geological Background of Snake and Spring Valley Ecosystem – pg. 3
5) Ancient Aquifer Filling and Recharge Rates Occurred Under Wetter Climate than Present Conditions – pg. 4
6) Ancient Fishes Survive Drying Climate in Owens Lake – pg. 5
7) Migratory Birds Depended on Owens Lake as Pacific Flyway Stopover – pg. 6
8) Subsidence and Desertification from Excessive Groundwater Removal in Owens Valley – pg. 7
9) Groundwater Dependent Vegetation (GDV) Lost After Water Table Lowered – pg. 9
10) Alkali Meadows Lost Following DWP Groundwater Withdrawals – pg. 10
11) Loss of GDV, Seep and Spring Fed Meadows Results in Biodiversity Losses in Amphibians and Reptiles – pg. 12
12) Ecosystem Collapse from Water Transfer Has Negative Effects on Human Communities of Owens Valley – pg. 13
13) Political Motivations and Tactics of Proponents of Owens Valley and Lake Water Diversion – pg. 14
14) Long Term Negative Effects of OVL Water Transfer Harms Ecosystems and Burdens Ratepayers – pg. 17
15) Water Agencies Promote Fear Yet Ignore Legitimate Ecological Concerns – pg. 19
16) Owens Lake Dust Mitigation by LADWP is Costly to Ratepayers and Environmentally Ineffective – pg. 23
17) Restoration of Owens Lake and Owens Valley Aquifer Benefits All – pg. 26
18) Scientists and Experts Predict Hydrological Disaster from SNWA Pipeline – pg. 26
19) SNWA Pipeline Proponents Who Would Benefit Financially from Water Transfer – pg. 27
20) Conclusion – Water Transfers are Ecologically Destructive and Need to Cease – pg. 28
21) References – pg. 32
This report has two primary goals; to prevent aquifer drawdown and resulting spring and seep dependent ecosystem collapse in Nevada’s Snake and Spring Valley by the proposed Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) and also to advocate restoration of the Owens Lake ecosystem impacted by water diversions begun by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) in 1913 and groundwater pumping begun by the DWP in 1970. The reminders for the proponents of the planned SNWA pipeline in Nevada come from already recognized negative effects of the water diversions from Owens Lake and then by excessive groundwater pumping on the Owens Valley ecosystem. The report will compare and contrast similarities and differences of the ecological effects of the effected regions and also the political strategies and motives of the planners and proponents of the water diversions. The premise is based upon probable outcomes for the Snake/Spring Valley groundwater dependent ecosystems that are evidenced from measured effects in the groundwater dependent ecosystems of the Owens Valley.
There are many similarities and a few significant differences between the Snake and Spring Valley (SSV) ecosystem and the Owens Valley, River and Lake (OVL) ecosystem. One overt difference is that Owens Lake water was stored mostly above ground, while the SSV water is stored far below ground in a deep karst aquifer system that spans underneath the Snake Mountains. However, the OVL ecosystem also contains groundwater, though not to the degree of the Lake above it. The similarities include both were formed by the same geological complex, in fact they nearly form the eastern (SSV) and western (OVL) boundaries of the characteristic spreading valleys and rising mountain blocks of Basin and Range Province. Many of their ecosystems are supported by groundwater coming to the surface as seeps and springs, considered groundwater dependent ecosystems. Both water supplies were filled during far wetter climates than our current desert conditions, and both ecosystems contain remnant endemic species that survived in isolated ecosystems once the larger amounts of water disappeared naturally following climate change.
Other similarities are witnessed in the actions of the water management agencies; Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). Both agencies used or are using fear tactics to promote their water projects, and both used or are using checkerboard land purchases to gain control of the water rights. Since the LADWP water project was begun in 1913, the past tense always refers to them, and since the SNWA water project has not yet been implemented, all present and/or future tenses refers to them.
Geological Background of Owens Valley and Lake Ecosystem (3)
The Owens Valley is about 100 miles long and between 6-20 miles wide, surrounded by mountain heights of the Sierra Nevada on the west and the Inyo range to the east. The valley floor dropped down between two faults while the mountains rose, giving extreme topography differences of over 10,000 feet in only 13 miles between Mt. Whitney and Lone Pine. The Owens Valley is an example of a linear fault bounded basin or “graben”, formed by extensional pulling stretching and breaking the crust apart. This valley is the western boundary of the geological Basin and Range province that covers Nevada to the Utah border (OVC, Heil).
The bedrock of the Owens Valley is covered by thick layers of sediment eroded from the surrounding mountains, in some places near Lone Pine and under the lake as thick as two miles. The source materials for the sediments are the granite plutons left over from uplifted quartz and feldspar containing magma chambers. The magma first intruded and replaced the original rocks of the region and then cooled off between 80-120 mya, then was uplifted and exposed between 2-5 mya. Weathering processes brought sediments down into the valley in broad cone shaped alluvial fans. The finest materials such as clays and silts were carried the farthest while the largest rocks remained at the foothills (OVC, Heil).
Seismic activity is regular for the Owens Valley, the 1872 Lone Pine quake created a 20 foot high scarp visible west of town. The offset along the scarp indicates another motion besides the east-west separation, as the Sierra Nevada side appears to move northwards relative to the Owens Valley side (OVC, Heil).
Around 10,000 years ago the last glacial period ended and Owens Lake was the end result of a large pluvial lake filled by melting glacial water, which then became gradually more saline as brine and salts remained in greater concentrations following the evaporation of fresh glacial water. However, Owens Lake did not become a naturally dry lake bed like many other Basin and Range lakes. The lake level dropped in the 1800s from agricultural diversions, than became rapidly dry after eleven years once the LADWP began water diversions in 1913 (OVC, Heil).
Prior to 1913 the Owens River once flowed through the valley from the source at the Long Valley Caldera and into Owens Lake where it covered an area 15 miles long by 10 miles wide and a depth of around 30 feet. Prior to the pumping of the 1970s, the valley supported many springs, seeps and thousands of acres of groundwater dependent alkali meadows (OVC, Heil).
Geological Background of the Snake and Spring Valley Ecosystem (4)
The Snake and Spring Valley are considered typical basin and range geology with mountains lifting up and valleys falling lower. The aquifers of the valleys are fed by runoff from the mountains that accumulate greater amounts of precipitation than the valleys due to their higher elevation. Water cools over the higher elevations and condenses into precipitation faster and in greater quantities. The springs and seeps of the aquifer system emerge at points where there is an opening in the ground surface and the pressure pushes the liquid out from below the ground. This process over time resulted in the waters accumulating in large quantities under the alluvial fill. The water filled up the karst caverns after percolating downwards through the alluvial fill. Through the process of carbonate minerals dissolving the caverns were hollowed out and enlarged through time as the rainfall’s gravitational pressure pushed downwards.
The climate changed and the rate of precipitation and aquifer infiltration was decreased over time until the present conditions of desert on valley floor with juniper pinyon pine and evergreen forest rising towards alpine summits where the snowpack lasts longest. Every spring the melting snowpack sends water downwards through fissures in bedrock that eventually heads into the aquifer below. The rate of infiltration today is considerably less than during the wetter prehistoric climates when the valley floor was covered in pinyons and evergreens were lower than their current position. There was a steady lowering of the water table over time as the decreased rate of infiltration meant the springs and seeps would not be as full nor as high in elevation.
Ancient Aquifer Filling and Recharge Rates Occurred Under Wetter Climate than Present Conditions (5)
In both the OVL and SSV ecosystems the rate of precipitation was far greater during their time of initial filling than under the present climate. Even before there were withdrawals by the LADWP the water was steadily leaving Owens Lake from its’ original amount. The drying climate and lower precipitation also reduced the surface area of Owens Lake over time while increasing the salinity from evaporation and salt accumulation. However it wasn’t as much as the total loss of the lake’s total area of water covered due to the LADWP diversions. Despite the salinity of Owens Lake, each year the brine shrimp that thrived in the salty water fed millions of birds, and it is reasonable to assume this would have continued uninterrupted for at least several centuries were it not for the LADWP diversions.
The SSV aquifer ecosystem was losing discharge velocity and volume from many seeps and springs as the climate became drier than the original rate of precipitation at the time of aquifer formation. When settlers arrived and began withdrawal from wells, there were certain years during times of drought that the springs would emerge as only a small trickle. This indicates that the aquifer level is no longer capable of producing gushing torrents at the spring and is very sensitive to fluctuations in the recharge rate and is not capable of maintaining additional withdrawals from outside of the region. The most probable outcome of allowing the SNWA pipeline withdrawals would be a permanent loss of the springs and seeps and lowering of the groundwater levels by hundreds of feet over the first two decades. This is based upon comparison with the total loss of the Owens Lake ecosystem following diversions and further losses of seeps and springs along Owens Valley following the groundwater pumping in the 1970s.
The determination of the groundwater level is influenced by the rate of recharge from precipitation and direct infiltration of the aquifer by downward percolation and the rate of discharge by either natural means at springs and seeps where groundwater levels emerge at the surface or by human extractions from pumping or removal from wells. In order to maintain groundwater levels at the elevation levels needed to maintain functional spring and seep ecosystems the rate of recharge needs to be greater than or equal to the rates of discharge. Prior to the extractions the only rate of discharge was through springs and seeps at the groundwater levels, and the only reason they would dry out would be from a drastically lowered rate of recharge following extended drought conditions.
This shared trait of gradual water losses from prehistoric climate change exponentially worsened to total losses by modern diversions is because the initial rates of recharge from when the aquifer filled were significantly greater than the current rates, as the climate during the time of filling had greater annual precipitation than the modern desert climate. This was evidenced by fossils of vegetation found in wetter climate conditions than those presently at that location. The present day rates of recharge fluctuate yet remain on average lower than when the aquifer originally filled, resulting in an imbalance as the rates of discharge are increasing from local withdrawals and proposed transfers. One advantage of using only local withdrawals is that irrigation water usually remains in the same water basin and any returns infiltrate downwards and remain in the same aquifer basin. Out of basin transfers require construction of conveyance infrastructure on a large scale to be viable, thus drastically increasing rates of discharge from the smaller withdrawals made from individual wells of ranches and towns. Though prior to the transfer’s groundwater withdrawals the ecosystem with both indigenous and later rural ranching communities were able to maintain some level of balance and keep the springs and seeps functional enough to support meadows and other groundwater dependent ecosystems, following transfer withdrawals the groundwater level fell suddenly throughout the OVL region and springs and seeps disappeared entirely.
The springs and seeps of the Owens Valley were dried up from excessive discharge rates overwhelming the rate of recharge from modern day precipitation levels. This also occurred with Owens Lake, despite gradual increases in salinity as a result of rate of evaporation being above rate of recharge from precipitation, the ecosystem of Owens Lake was able to sustain brine shrimp and some ancient fishes in the Owens River. However, this delicate balance was disturbed in the most severe way by the draining and transference of Owens Lake water in the early century. The ecosystem could handle a slight difference in the lower rate of recharge compared to the rate of evaporation, though was unable to handle the severe differences brought about by the additional losses from the transfer compounding slight losses from evaporation.
Ancient Fishes Survive Drying Climate in Owens Lake (6)
The history of Owens Lake begins at the Great Basin’s western edge during the late Pleistocene nearly 10,000 years ago when Owens Lake was filled up to around 250 feet deep, eventually flowing over into other lakebeds as far south as China Lake. When the glacier’s water input was reduced, the lakes shrank and several species of fish were stranded, surviving in a few isolated springs and along the Owens River and its tributaries and in Owens Lake. With the varied conditions of the new ecosystems and reproductive isolation the fish showed quick adaptive radiation and speciation (OVC, Klingler).
The problems for the endemic fish of Owens River and Lake began with the DWP’s diversions and were compounded by introduced non-native fish species. This brought the Owens pupfish (Cyprinodon radiosus) close to extinction on many occasions since the diversions began. After several close calls of near certain extinctions and populations as low as 800, the federal government declared the Owens Pupfish endangered in 1967 and California also did the same in 1971 (OVC, Klingler).
Other endangered fish endemic to the Owens River and Lake are the Owens tui chub (subspecies Siphateles bicolor snyderi), now existing only in the Upper Owens River Gorge (below Long Valley Dam), the Lower Owens River Gorge and White Mountain Research Station Recently a new subspecies of tui chub called the toikona tui chub was found along the Owens Lake shoreline. These Owens Valley tui chub seem to choose thick vegetative cover and pools without any fast currents. Overall there are at least a total of five species and subspecies of fish that are endemic to the Owens River and Lake watershed region. These include the Owens pupfish, Owens tui chub (Siphaeteles bicolor snyderi), the toikona tui chub (Siphaeteles bicolor subspecies), the Owens speckled dace (Rhinichthys osculus), and the Owens sucker (Catostomus fumeiventris) (OVC, Klingler).
Migratory Birds Depended on Owens Lake as Pacific Flyway Stopover (7)
Prior to the diversions by LADWP 1913, Owens Lake was a major rest stop on the migratory flyway for waterfowl. There was enough water in Owens Lake that it took several years to empty and was used by migratory waterfowl for years after the diversions began until the mudflats dried completely. In 1917 Joseph Grinnell visited from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley and observed thousands of birds creating clouds in the sky and twirling shadows across the lake’s surface. Along the entire length of his trip from the south end to Olancha Grinnell reported a near continuous presence of birds (OVC, Prather).
Owens Lake has greater salinity levels than the ocean as a result of centuries of evaporation that reduced the size of the lake while keeping the dissolved salts and minerals in the lake without any drainage. There were two species that survived this saline ecosystem in large populations; salt flies and brine shrimp. The massive biomass of these two salt tolerant species formed the base of the food pyramid that attracted millions of migrating birds to the Lake as a rest and refueling stop along their Pacific Flyway route. According to writings by Beveridge R. Spear, the Owens Valley supported ducks “by the square mile, millions of them. When they rose in flight, the roar of their wings could be heard ten miles away.” When settlers like Spear began arriving in the 1860s, the millions of ducks fattened up on the Lake’s food supply of saltgrass and brine shrimp provided them with enough food to survive the dry summers and cold winters (Reisner, 61).
There were a few remaining wetlands along the shores fed by spring and artesian well water, though these were unable to prevent the lakebed dust from spreading toxins such as arsenic, cadmium, nickel and sulfates into the air (OVC, Prather).
The National Audubon Society declared Owens Lake as a national significant Important Bird Area resulting from the thousands of shorebirds migrating from between the Artic and Central and South America each year during spring and fall. In addition the snowy plovers nest along Owens Lake in great numbers, along with snow geese and many different species of ducks that overwinter. These inland stopovers including Salt Lake, Mono Lake and Owens Lake sustain birds from as far as Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego to the south and the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean to the north. Geologists have recorded bird stopovers from as early as 800,000 years ago. There are few other feeding stops along the way, and birds require enough fat reserves to make the long distance trip to arrive at their northern breeding grounds by May (OVC, Prather).
The Owens Lake Dust Control Project covered 3.5 out of 30 square miles of the Lake’s 100 square mile total surface area with native salt grass using drip irrigation. The remaining 27 square miles are either ponded or sheet flooded. Following the shallow flooding dust control in 2001, the migratory stopover for birds gave an April 2008 bird count event 112 species and a total of 46,650 birds; black-bellied and snowy plovers, western and least sandpipers, long-billed curlews, California gulls, American avocets, eared grebes, small sandpipers, and ducks at Owens Lake. Another August 2008 count got 71 species and a total of 42,754 birds; peregrine falcons, white-faced ibis, black-necked stilts, American avocets, northern shovelers, western and least sandpipers, California gulls, and Wilson's and red-necked phalaropes (OVC, Prather).
In addition to Owens Lake brine shrimp hosting migratory waterfowl, the seeps and spring fed wetlands hosted other types of birds. The seeps were dependent upon the upwelling of groundwater emerging at specific points and flooding a somewhat level meadow region that was capable of supporting grasses and lush vegetation in contrast to the surrounding desert scrubland’s harsh conditions. The springs were capable of supporting riparian corridors resembling green trim cascading down the mountain slopes. Along these riparian oasis thrived many species of birds and amphibians that would have been scorched in the desert’s hot, dusty and dry climate.
The groundwater pumping by LADWP in the 1970s led to a rapid lowering of the water table at a rate that exponentially exceeded the gradual lowering from ancient climate change. The seeps and springs that existed at their specific elevation would have remained there for centuries in the future intact were it not for the groundwater pumping conducted by LADWP. The upwelling of groundwater was needed to sustain these ecosystems, and without the presence of emerging water the ground dried out and the endemic species of the seeps and springs became extinct. The upwelling of aquifer water emerging as seeps and springs was supporting the soil structures around them by counteracting the downwards force of gravity. When the seeps and springs dried the soil structure crumbled and caused localized subsidence and fissuring, the lead cause of erosion. Desertification follows after groundwater dependent vegetation no longer has water available to their root zones.
Subsidence and Desertification from Excessive Groundwater Removal (8)
Groundwater levels are based upon the balance between the rate of recharge and the rate of discharge. The influences that determine the groundwater level’s balance are yearly precipitation totals for measuring recharge rates and withdrawals by humans influencing discharge rates. Other regular and natural factors that effect discharge rates are the presence of seeps and/or springs that release groundwater through openings between the spring or seep and the position where the groundwater level meets the surface. Recharge rates based upon yearly precipitation also factor in the rate of infiltration based upon soil porosity and whether the precipitation water is going to be lost as runoff or enters the groundwater system directly by way of downwards percolation. Discharge rates are determined by emergences from seeps and springs and withdrawals from wells.
Groundwater as defined by E.C. Pielou is “water that saturates the ground, filling all the available spaces," or ‘water within the saturated zone, the upper boundary of which is known as the water table.’ The Owens Valley water table contains an unsaturated zone between the groundwater and the surface where only vadose water exists. Conditions in soil permeability, groundwater depth and amount of vadose water are all influences on the size and numbers of plant species growing on the surface (OVC, CJK).
The primary type of groundwater in Owens Valley is meteoric groundwater, defined by Pielou as "groundwater that circulates as part of the water cycle". Meteoric groundwater is either recharged by precipitation or by surface water percolating down past the unsaturated zone and into the groundwater. Throughout the year the Owens Valley does not get much recharge from precipitation, averaging between one to seven inches between ’93 and ’02. Most species endemic to the region depend on either surface water or groundwater that both originate from snowmelt coming off the surrounding mountains down into the aquifer through alluvial fans. Groundwater reserves can also be recharged by seeping down from tributary stream beds and the Owens River bed (OVC, CJK).
Groundwater recharge rates are determined by soil permeability, amount of water inflow, soil moisture and rate of water availability. Water from a heavy rainstorm is available all at once and gathers too fast on the surface to percolate into the soil and thus is carried away as runoff, while water from a light rainstorm is available over too long a time for it to percolate and is lost to evaporation. Owens Valley groundwater originally came from melting snow as runoff or flows below ground, though the DWP surface water diversions drastically reduced the recharge potential. Following additional diversions combined with groundwater pumping by DWP in the early ‘70s, a loss of springs and change in surface vegetation was recorded (OVC, CJK).
The results of groundwater depletion are loss of seeps and springs, land subsidence and loss of endemic plant and animal species dependent on these water sources. A spring or seep is where groundwater flows out at the point of least resistance, and once depleted the groundwater no longer is high enough to emerge at this exit point. The loss of springs from lowered groundwater is a primary factor in the rapid decline of Owens Valley pupfish populations. Once the groundwater lowers and the unsaturated vadose zone increases downwards, many plant species cannot grow their roots this far down and then die, resulting in massive dust storms as nothing remains to hold the soil. These dust storms cause asthma and other respiratory health problems in humans and many other living beings. The loss of seeps and springs also eliminate resting, nesting and food stopovers from migratory and native species of birds and other animals (OVC, CLK).
Subsidence and desertification are commonly found to occur in regions where there are greater rates of discharge from wells and/or diversions than rates of recharge are capable of covering the losses. Other regions throughout the U.S. and elsewhere that experience desertification and subsidence are the San Joaquin Valley, Florida’s karst aquifers, the Ogallala aquifer and many others too long for a list. This common pattern is allowed to continue unchecked as the proponents and planners of these monumental water diversions usually have enough financial backing to advertise their messages to gain public funding and support. There is no thought given to the long term consequences of these diversions and the people raising concerns are dismissed as being extremists and against progress. The reality is that water diversions severely disable progress from occurring in one region while promoting hyper-progress and sprawling development in another. In rural regions like Owens Valley and Eastern Nevada progress is dependent on ranching and grazing of sagebrush and grassland ecosystems. Though too many cattle can trample vegetation, a limited amount of cattle can graze the seeps and spring fed grasslands without causing tremendous damage. To consider it proportionally, the grazing cattle need a healthy ecosystem to survive, and without the water for the grass the ecosystem cannot support native species or cattle. If there is no spring fed grassland to begin with, how many grazing cattle is too much cannot be determined. The greatest effect of large scale water diversions is loss of groundwater dependent vegetation, and the resulting ecosystem that relies upon vegetation for sustenance.
Groundwater Dependent Vegetation in Owens Valley Lost After Water Table Lowered (9)
Prior to settlement and long before the water diversions, the Paiutes of Owens Valley were harvesting native food plants and had extensive irrigation canals along the Owens River. Some early visitors such as the U.S. Army’s Captain Davidson remarked upon the lushness of the meadows along the valley floor. Riparian corridors of trees such as cottonwoods, willows and even oaks were found along the valley floor (OVC, Pritchett).
The Paiutes had supplemented their diet of birds with some crops raised in floodplains and irrigated with water diverted from the Owens River by small canals. When the settlers grew in numbers there were further conflicts with the Paiutes that resulted in many deaths and the Paiutes eventually being driven further from their ancestral lands. The settlers adopted the irrigation methods and canals used by the Paiutes and began growing alfalfa and fruit (Reisner, 62). The original meadow wetlands surrounding seeps and springs were able to withstand the social changes and remained viable until the groundwater extractions by DWP in the 1970’s.
In places where there is a high water table alkali meadows are found, containing native grasses such as Sporobolus airoides (sacaton) and Distichlis spicata (saltgrass). Endangered species of flowers found in alkali meadows include Calochortus excavatus (Inyo County star tulip) and Sidalcea covillei (Coville’s checkerbloom). As an ecosystem alkali meadows are considered to be “very threatened” by the California Natural Diversity Database. The related alkali shrub ecosystem is usually an indicator of water stress on the meadow plants, as excessive groundwater extraction results in alkali meadows being converted to alkali scrub. Alkali scrub plants include Atriplex lentiformis ssp. torreyi (Nevada saltbush), Chrysothamnus nauseosus (rabbitbrush), Sarcobatus vermiculatus (greasewood), and Suaeda moquinii (inkweed) (OVC, Pritchett).
In environments with limited water plants are either drought tolerant or drought evasive. The drought tolerant plants such as shadscale and creosote are extremely efficient at water use, enabling them to survive in regions with little precipitation or moisture. The drought evasive plants are effective at promoting maximum growth in limited regions where water is available on a regular basis along rivers, streams, seeps and springs or anyplace where groundwater is near the surface. Another term for drought evasive plants is groundwater dependent vegetation (GDV) as these plants are threatened by excessive groundwater withdrawals and lowered water tables. Throughout the Owens Valley there were many regions of GDV that were later cleared for agriculture, though many parts of alkali meadows remained intact despite the diversions of the aqueduct and the agricultural clearing (OVC, Pritchett).
Alkali Meadows Lost Following DWP Groundwater Withdrawals (10)
One example of a GDV ecosystem is alkali meadows. During the 1980s the DWP found 70,000 acres along the valley floor of native alkali meadow grasses. Their abundance is a result of the shallow groundwater of the Owens Valley. In addition to saltgrass and sacaton, other alkali meadow graminoids include Leymus triticoides, Juncus balticus, Muhlenbergia asperifolia, Leymus cinereus, and, Spartina gracilis. Intermingled throughout the grasses are irises, lilies and broad leaf plants such as; Anemopsis californica, Glychyrrhiza lepidota, Cordylanthus maritimus ssp. canescens, Malvella leprosa, Astragalus lentiginosus, Sisyrinchium halophilum, Crepis runcinata ssp. hallii, Sidalcea covillei, Calochortus excavates, and some species from the genus Cleomella. Alkali meadows provide habitat for the Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), an endemic vole (Microtus californicus ssp. vallicola), and many other rare and threatened species (OVC, Manning).
Alkali meadows in the Owens Valley have typical characteristics such as fine grained soils and average total green plant ground cover of 38%, though has ranges from 5% to 85%. Most meadows that are not pumped have groundwater about 2 meters below the surface. When the water table is lowered, shrub species tend to be found in greater proportions. A 1997 study showed pair-ups between rabbitbrush and saltgrass and also Nevada saltbush with alkali sacaton (OVC, Manning).
Outside of the Owens Valley, alkali meadows are a rare ecosystem type. Though there were originally more alkali meadows in the San Joaquin Valley, a study by the Gap Analysis Project (GAP) indicates that over two thirds of California’s alkali meadows are found in the Owens Valley (OVC, Manning).
Prior to diversions in 1913 the Owens Valley was covered with grasslands in the region where the Sierra Nevada’s alluvial fans contact the valley floor. In a study published in 1912 USGS engineer Charles H. Lee showed the grasslands south of Poverty Hills were located where the groundwater was around 8 feet or shallower. This long lasting band of shallow groundwater was formed eons ago through a combination of geological and hydrological forces causing it to remain at the toeslopes of the alluvial fans and support lush meadow grasses usually rare for arid valleys with low (5.5 “/yr) precipitation rates (OVC, Manning).
The pumping began after the diversions and the aqueduct, and many individual incidents occurred around certain wellsites. One alluvial fan toeslope south of the town of Independence (south of Mazourka Canyon Rd., east of U.S. 395) was pumped heavily during the ‘60s and ‘70s at the Symmes Shepard wellfield site that by the mid ‘80s meadows were replaced by barren patches of soil and monoculture stands of invasive Nevada saltbrush (Atriplex lentiformis ssp. torreyi). The decades of pumping dropped the groundwater level lower than eight feet, converting meadows with rich biodiversity into a monoculture stand of an opportunistic invading species, the scientific textbook definition of desertification (OVC, Manning).
Under the Water Agreement’s current management goals are prevention of additional losses of vegetation of species existing there in the mid ‘80s. Unfortunately this selection criteria would result in the native meadow vegetation near Symmes Shepard well site called Lee’s meadow becoming an extinct ecosystem forever (OVC, Manning).
As the meadows and wetlands were dewatered, some plants like common meadow bunchgrass (Sporobolus airoides) was found to have root systems intact for years. However, most plants soon dry and disintegrate and the soils once wet dry into lightweight dusty organic matter that is transported into the air by wind erosion. One measurable example of soil erosion from wind is when old clumps of bunchgrass are exposed as pedestals after the topsoil held in place by their roots eroded away. Prior to their death, the crowns of the bunchgrasses were even with the ground’s surface when the meadows were intact. The distance from the current pedestal to the ground is how much soil was lost from erosion, as much as 10 cm lost in meadow sites south of Independence (OVC, Manning).
This erosion is not unique to only a few sites, in 1986 an area classified as a meadow was temporarily lost by heavy pumping during the late ‘80s. The Inyo County Water Department showed loss of living bunchgrass cover during this decade while groundwater levels were lowered from excessive pumping. In the late ‘90s after pumping slowed and water tables recovered, the grasses returned though the presence of elevated pedestals is evidence of soil lost to wind erosion during the period of groundwater lowering (OVC, Manning).
The springs, seeps, alkali meadows and other groundwater dependent wetlands survived the initial diversions of 1913 mostly intact until the groundwater pumping of 1970 by DWP to fill their recently expanded aqueduct’s capacity. The negative impacts of the pumping were soon felt, forcing Inyo County to file a lawsuit under CEQA. The Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) was signed in 1989 that requires monitoring of the pumping, though it is not evidenced to be effective to this date (OVC, Manning).
The LTWA’s EIR shows at least 60,000 acres of combined alkali meadows, wetlands and desert riparian ecosystems as of 1986. The groundwater wells near these meadows lower the water table and some sites (TS2) have shown drops in vegetative cover from 33% in ’88 to 14% in ’04, and changes in vegetation characteristics from mostly grasses to mostly shrubs (OVC, Manning).
When groundwater pumping lowers the water table to a position below the root zone the impacts are measured in lowered vegetative groundcover, losses of perennial native grasses and introduction of invasive exotic species, the overall process termed desertification. Continued evaluations indicate the groundwater levels will not recover unless DWP lowers the rates of pumping for their well sites (OVC, Manning). The loss of GDV from groundwater pumping effects the entire ecosystem.
Loss of GDV, Seep and Spring Fed Meadows Results in Biodiversity Losses in Amphibians and Reptiles (11)
The GDV creates a food pyramid with available lush greenery and breeding habitat for many insects, the base of the food pyramid for predatory amphibians and reptiles. Within the Owens Valley amphibians consist of at least five species of frogs [Pacific treefrogs (Pseudacris regilla), northern leopard frogs (Rana pipiens), bullfrogs (R. catesbeiana)] and toads [Great Basin spadefoot toads (Spea intermontana), and western toads (Anaxyrus boreas)] in the lower elevations of Owens Valley and three salamanders [Owens Valley web-toed salamander (Hydromantes platycephalus), the Kern Plateau slender salamander (Batrachoseps robustus) and Inyo Mountains slender salamander (B. campi)] along the foothills surrounding the valley. Higher elevation frogs and toads include the Southern mountain yellow-legged frogs (R. muscosa), Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs (R. sierrae), and Yosemite toads (A. canorus) (OVC, Klingler).
Negative effects on native endemic amphibians in the Owens Valley include invasive species such as bullfrogs that kill and compete with native species to such an extreme that the northern leopard frog is virtually extirpated from their previous habitat along the valley floor. Excessive groundwater pumping in the ‘70s by the DWP has dropped groundwater levels along with populations of Great Basin spadefoot toad. The water table that provided needed soil moisture for their burrows was too far below the root zone and too deep for the toad’s burrows to reach (OVC, Klingler).
Reptiles number around 33 species with variations found between geology and topography features. Most of the Owens Valley reptile populations reside either in higher elevations [sagebrush lizards (Sceloporus graciosus)] or in sandy flats [desert horned lizards (Phrynosoma platyrhinos)] some considerable distance away from direct contact with water sources such as the Owens River and Lake. However, despite residing away from water, the valley’s reptiles also depend upon the wetlands for a food source of insects and other small invertebrates. Many insects depend upon a regular water source for some portion of their larval life cycle, then as adults migrating a short distance from the water and into the habitat of the hungry Owens Valley reptile population. Several species choose their home far closer to the direct water source, such as rubber boas (Charina bottae) near alkali meadows and king snakes (Lampropeltis getula), gopher snakes (Pituophis catenifer) and sidewinders (Crotalus cerastes) in low sandy flats along the valley floor (OVC, Klingler).
This covers the effects of the majority of the “lower rung” species that inhabit the food pyramid of the OVL ecosystem. Certain reptiles such as rattlesnakes also represent top tier predator species that do not have other predators themselves besides humans who prefer the taste of snake and some very brave, hungry and daring birds such as eagles or large hawks that try to pick off baby rattlesnakes. The mammals that depend on the OVL include domestics such as cattle and sheep and many species of ground squirrels, voles and other tunnel dwellers. Tule elk inhabited the Owens Valley in large herds and grazed on the wetlands grasses. The tule elk, deer and rabbits could exist in greater numbers in the Owens Valley as a direct result of the lush meadow vegetation that relied upon the extra spring water. In effect these seeps and springs were providing additional amounts of biomass in the form of vegetation that could support larger populations of grazing animals. In turn the grazing animals were harvested sustainably by the indigenous Paiutes of the Owens Valley for centuries without altering their populations. Since the groundwater withdrawals of the 1970’s these animals have decreased in population as a result of having less vegetation around the now dry seeps and springs. This relatively recent loss after the drop in migratory birds that also provided natural protein from the food pyramid of Owens Lake brine shrimp. The broader the base of the food pyramid species the greater the number of upper tier predators such as humans and eagles and intermediate predators such as birds like ducks that also serve as prey for the upper tier predators. The ducks and other intermediate predatory birds derive their protein surplus exclusively from the brine shrimp during their time at the Owens Lake rest stop. By narrowing the base of the food pyramid and removing the production potential for millions of tons of brine shrimp for a bird’s buffet feast is clearly going to have an adverse effect on reducing the overall bird population. Reducing the base of the food pyramid for migratory birds as the loss of the Owens Lake rest stop has lowered the populations of these migratory birds for nearly a century.
Ecosystem Collapse from Water Transfer Has Negative Effects on Human Communities of Owens Valley (12)
The human communities of the Owens Valley have relied upon Owens Lake brine shrimp to attract waterfowl for hunting. Indigenous Paiutes were able to survive along the shores of Owens Lake for thousands of years by sustainably hunting the twice yearly arrivals of migratory birds that always came in staggered shifts through the spring and fall. The base of the food pyramid that supports the large bird populations are Owens Lake brine shrimp and also wetland grasses found in seeps and springs throughout the Owens Valley. This was an original paradise that was self-sustaining and provided reliable harvests of birds and plants for many Paiute villages along the length of the valley and surrounding Owens Lake. Removal of water from Owens Lake by the LADWP destroyed this inland sea’s ecological paradise and in the process eliminated options for the Owens Valley Paiute to physically engage with their source of food in a culturally relevant way. By removing their natural food sources depending on existing water sources, the LADWP water transfers began a century long war of cultural genocide against the Owens Valley Paiutes. The same process of cultural genocide from forced loss of native plant and animal food sources following SNWA water transfers would be enacted on the Paiutes and Goshutes of the eastern Nevada region bordering the Snake and Spring Valley aquifer system as they are connected to other aquifers. Cultural genocide against indigenous people can be defined as enacting changes to the ecosystem that prevent normal cultural interactions of the indigenous human communities with their original intact ecosystem through native plant and animal harvests.
As former Goshute Chairman Rupert Steele mentioned; “if we lose our language or our lands, we will cease to be Goshute people.” The SNWA’s proposed pipeline is the worst attack on the Goshute’s lifestyle since Europeans came over 150 years ago (Goshute Nation).
Why this ecological paradise of Owens Lake and Valley was destroyed is a mystery for many, as the entire century has elapsed since the proponents for the water transfer begun their planning. Political motivations for development schemes in the San Fernando Valley are believed to be the actual reasoning behind the water transfer.
Political Motivations and Tactics of Proponents of Owens Valley and Lake Water Diversion (13)
The proponents of transfers that are found working in bureaucratic water agencies such as LADWP and SNWA are fallible human beings not above the influences of financial corruption and greed. These bureaucrats often have several powerful political allies that are also beneficiaries of the water grab schemes. This was demonstrated by the steep financial slopes of increasing profit gained by the proponents of Owens Valley beginning in the early 1900s. The accumulated wealth of the San Fernando Valley for agriculture and later development was based upon the water heist engineered by Mulholland and Eaton among others. Certainly these two individuals and their many allies in the bureaucracy of the DWP were among the early beneficiaries of accumulations of capitol and wealth. It is sad and unfortunate that this wealth was based upon the destruction and devastation visited upon the Owens Valley. If ever there was a case for geographical bullying within a state the Owens Valley water heist by Mulholland and the DWP is a prime example. Prior to the heist the Owens Valley had potential to become a livable community with a lake as large as a sea and a valley with lush grasses and trees.
In addition to a self-sustaining ecosystem, the Owens Valley also had over 60,000 acres of prime soil that could be irrigated with gravity fed spring and run off water. This water came from the surrounding mountains that captured extra yearly precipitation than the drier valley due to their higher elevations and the tendency for atmospheric moisture to condense into rainfall in the mountain’s cooler temperatures. The surrounding mountains and their pristine beauty created a potential for a symbiotic relationship between the Owens Valley and Los Angeles. The Owens Valley was already becoming a popular tourist destination visited by Mark Twain and Mary Austin. There were plans for a railroad spur connecting L.A. to the Owens Valley for summer campers, fishing and winter skiers. The growing Owens Valley towns of Bishop, Lone Pine and Independence were filled with people hoping for a great relationship with the city of Los Angeles and her people. However, some other individuals including Pasadena’s Fred Eaton has other ideas (Reisner, 62).
Fred Eaton worked as a hydrologist and eventually became superintendent of the Los Angeles City Water Company. Here he became friends with Bill Mulholland and they made plan for bringing water to Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley from Owens Lake and Owens River. In 1904 the city was over 100,000 during a drought the two superintendents engineered a temporary water shortage that angered farmers in the San Fernando Valley (Reisner, 63-4).
The initial claims made by Eaton, Mulholland and the DWP were that Los Angeles needed the water to grow and dire consequences would befall the city if the people did not have access to the water. However, this claim was far removed from reality and the architects of the aqueduct scheme to transfer water from the Owens Valley had ulterior motives. In addition to purchasing land in the Owens Valley to claim water rights they were also quietly purchasing large parcels of inexpensive land in the San Fernando Valley (SFV). In 1904 Fred Eaton began to purchase checkerboard ranches in the Owens Valley, attempting to own every other ranch along much of the length of the river (Wood, pg. 20-1).
Then on November 28, 1904 a group of wealthy investors purchased near 16,000 acres in the SFV from a landholding corporation. The odd detail of this land purchase was that the investors did not complete the deal until March 23, 1905 on the same day Fred Eaton told them about the critical Rickey ranch purchase that derailed the Reclamation Service’s OVP. That telegraphed message from Eaton indicated to the investment group that they had secured 250,000 feet of water rights for the sum of $50,000 through the Owens Valley land purchase from Mr. Rickey (Reisner, 78).
Though all the methods used to obtain Owens Valley water were technically legal, campaigns of division, deception, duplicity and bribery were all tactics used by the Water Dept. employees. The Owens Valley was economically savaged while a few individuals in LA and the SFV became extremely wealthy. There were subtle clues that would have rang alarm bells, though at the time it went unnoticed. An article in the Inyo Register on September 29, 1904 mentioned that Eaton and Mulholland along with Bureau of Reclamation engineer Joseph Lippincott visited a site on the Owens River where a proposed government dam would be located. Another clue that something was afoot was that this was their third visit to the Owens Valley (Reisner, 65).
Only one person who worked closely with Lippincott was initially suspicious. Jacob Clausen was an engineer who had graduated from Berkeley and was an employee of Lippincott. He noticed on Lippincott’s second visit to the valley when he asked a local rancher about selling his land that he was especially curious about his water rights. During this visit Clausen was asked by his boss Lippincott to explain the Owens Valley Project to Eaton. The Owens Valley Project (OVP) was designed by the Reclamation Service (Reisner, 65-6).
Discussion over a hydroelectric dam designed by the OVP included a debate between to power license applicants; Nevada Power Mining and Milling Company (NPMMC) and Owens River Water and Power Company (ORWPC). After surveying the Owens Valley and requesting documents that detailed land ownership, stream flows and water rights Eaton recommended in favor of the NPMMC much to Clausen’s surprise. The reason Eaton favored the NPMMC over the ORPWC was that one of the senior partners of NPMMC was the same rancher questioned by Lippincott about water rights on their second visit, Mr. Thomas B. Rickey. After Lippincott formalized Eaton’s preferred choice of approving NPMMC for the application, Clausen began to feel certain something was wrong (Reisner, (67-8).
Several years after securing the initial water in the aqueduct, the land they purchased earlier in the SFV was now being sold and developed for profit by the proponents. The SFV’s first developers used the Owens Valley aqueduct water for agribusiness, and most of the water did not even reach the intended recipients and remained in the SFV. Morrow Mayo’s “Los Angeles” stated that in 1903 the city did not require the water from the Owens Lake, that it was primarily a real estate speculation deal (Wood, pg. 22).
Mayo says, Bankers and real estate operators quietly bought up inexpensive desert land in the San Fernando Valley, then purchased pseudo-ranching land and with it control over the Owens River, and finally used media propaganda to scare L.A. taxpayers into paying for the aqueduct to bring the water 250 miles to L.A., conveniently passing the San Fernando Valley and irrigating it (Wood, pg. 22).
Along with Clausen, Inyo County Bank President Wilfred Watterson began to express concerns about Eaton purchasing land from local ranchers in large quantities and without regard for price. In 1905 Watterson discovered an LA city clerk quickly mailing something after picking up a package from a safe in the bank. He surmised that the clerk was Harry Lelande, the official responsible for any documents related to water and land transfers. He asked Lelande for the deed returned to him, though it was already too late (Reisner, 69-70).
In the summer of 1905 a conflict developed between the Reclamation Services plans and the claims made by LA for the water. A panel formed to mediate between the opposing sides ruled that the OVP should not be zealously implemented, nor should it be abandoned. They added that LA must show evidence of a need for the water and the means to construct a transfer conveyance aqueduct. Then Eaton convinced rancher Thomas Rickey to sell his land that was in a crucial location where he could block the Reclamation Service project. The final nail in the Reclamation Service project’s coffin was when Mulholland organized a fundraiser trip with wealthy residents, then used that money to purchase as much land in Owens Valley as he could. On July 29, 1905 the Reclamation Service officially gave up their project and gave the water rights exclusively to the LA water officials. This led to the first public announcement by Harrison Gray Otis’s LA Times about the water project despite him having known about the plan several years earlier (Reisner, 71 - 2).
Following completion of the aqueduct, the real estate values went from 20/acre to 2,000/acre in SFV. Nordskog stated that the real estate speculators netted 100,000,000 from the water grab. Up until 1923 the total amount of Owen’s water did not reach L.A., it was all taken for irrigation in the SFV (Wood, pg. 22).
During the first twenty years following opening of the aqueduct most of the water never reached LA as the SFV crops grabbed three times as much water as LA. From 1913-18 the SFV’s agricultural land rose from 3,000 acres to 75,000. (Reisner, 89-90).
J.P. Lippencott and others wrote in their reports to Pres. Roosevelt that the water was to be only for domestic uses in L.A. The reports requested that Roosevelt strike out any provisions that prevented the water from being used for irrigation (Wood, pg. 23).
Claims of “greatest good for the greatest number” can be debunked by using floodwater harnessing methods that would have protected Owens Lake. However, any plans for water storage prior to the aqueduct were derailed by a feud between Eaton and Mulholland (Wood, pg. 24).
Inyo Register editor Will Chalfant wrote in his book “Story of Inyo” that “every trick and device of misrepresentation was used in the campaign.” He stated that he overheard a city representative brag that he knew the financial and mortgage status of everyone in the Owens Valley. The buyouts of ranches in the checkerboard pattern caused land values to depreciate on both sides of any remaining ranchers that refused to sell to the city. The excessive mortgages added burdens to the Inyo County Bank and this was the primary reason for the local bank’s collapse soon after (Wood, pg. 31).
The investors of the SFV land purchases including Otis, Chandler, Sherman and others in the San Fernando Mission Land Company all became wealthy. In 1911 Otis, Chandler and Sherman bought a total of 300,000 acres that became the Tejon Ranch. Judging by this outcome and the original source of the Reclamation Service in orchestrating the Owens Valley water transfer it becomes apparent that the federal entity formed to help small irrigation farmers is more like a tool used by the wealthy to acquisition water for developers and large agribusiness consolidations. The process of water flowing towards money continues today as the Reclamation Service is now the Bureau of Reclamation. The supposed benefit of Owens Valley water helping LA and the SFV grow with development needs to be balanced with the effects of smog and sprawl (Reisner, 105 -6).
In June 1924 the L.A. Chamber of Commerce sent a committee to Owens Valley to investigate the situation. An editorial in the L.A. Record stated that the report was critical of city officials and sided with the Owens Valley residents, and thus was never published. The investigation was called for following the first incident of sabotage against the canal on May 21, 1924 when a small charge of dynamite was discharged along the aquifer two miles north of Lone Pine. Despite halfhearted attempts to mitigate the losses of the Owens Valley residents with promises of additional storage, the reality was that city officials were still purchasing more land along the Owens River (Wood, 31-2).
Long Term Negative Effects of OVL Water Transfer Harms Ecosystems and Burdens Ratepayers (14)
The modern day side effects of the water transfer are borne on the shoulders of L.A.’s utility ratepayers. The warnings of mitigation costs for future dust storms were ignored by the proponents and immediate beneficiaries, resulting in decades of lawsuits for the OVL ecosystem and by the region’s residents. Their lives were severely impacted every day by the clouds of blowing dust following the dried out lakebed’s fine clay soil grain’s exposure to blowing winds.
None of these long term consequences of the water transfer were of concern to the proponents of the Owens Valley and Lake (OVL) diversion project who had long since retired to enjoy their financial spoils without being held responsible for the consequences of their actions. Instead they were praised for helping the “greater good” by enabling the expansion of rapid suburban development of the SFV in the post war economic boom decade of the 1950s. During this time the land use was converted from agribusiness to suburban sprawl development, usually fixed with green lawns that required frequent watering in the coastal desert climate.
Construction of the 223 mile long aqueduct was an enormous undertaking that was so expensive Mulholland had underpaid his workers despite their loyalty to the project. He was often ruthless in his efficiency, once complaining when a worker who was stuck for three days in a tunnel received hard boiled eggs rolled through a pipe without being charged board (Reisner, 88-9).
Due to lowered values and economic instability, any remaining ranchers or farmers of the Owens Valley were forced to sell at extremely low prices and many left the valley destitute and in poverty (Woods, 44).
Land purchases by water department continued and values were deliberately underestimated at 50% below what ranchers and farmers thought a fair price. They purchased fifty parcels of 2,730 acres in West Bishop for 1,000,000. The wells drilled on this land were later dynamited beginning on April 3, 1926 and continued with charges placed along the aqueduct (Wood, 38-9).
Sabotage incidents continued and led up to the incident on May 27, 1927 when guards were seized at Nine Mile Canyon just south of Little Lake and the aqueduct was dynamited to where water flooded the highway, resulting in its’ closure. This same night a water department’s power house penstock west of Big Pine was also detonated (Wood, 40).
The acts of sabotage were met with a police state response with traffic stops and searchlights throughout the Owens Valley and several witch hunts against residents in efforts to catch the vandals. By July 27, 1927 the dynamite incidents ceased as the Owens Valley was broken financially by August 4, 1927. The Watterson brothers who owned the local banks were forced into bankruptcy as their mortgages and debts were far above their heads (Woods, 42-3).
By 1925 LA had grown to 1.2 million and was also enduring a drought, causing the Owens River water to near the point of being over appropriation. As the drought continued there were regulations placed on the SFV irrigators and Mulholland began to build storage reservoirs in the basin (Reisner, 91-2).
The overappropriation of water led Mulholland to enlarge the Saint Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon to a capacity of 11.4 billion gallons despite warnings from his staff of engineers. Almost immediately after the enlargement was completed, the dam began leaking. On March 12, 1928 Mulholland visited the dam site and claimed that it was safe. Just a few minutes to midnight that same day after Mulholland had left the dam burst. After dam failure a two hundred foot high wall of water swept down San Francisquito Canyon, taking 75 families along with the torrents. After entering the Santa Clara River floodplain the rushing water rolled over several work camps and more towns. By the time it was over the ruptured dam’s water killed around 450 people, destroyed over twelve hundred homes and removed topsoil from 8,000 acres of farmland. Mulholland’s assertion of the enlargement’s safety despite the warnings of his engineering team ended his career. However, he remained cold and callous to the very end, saying “I envy the dead.” (Reisner, 101-3)
By 1934 the economic devastation from water theft changed the character of the Owens Valley, leading to the term “Valley of Broken Hearts” by the SF Call. When Will Rogers visited the valley in 1932, the changes were apparent, “Los Angeles had to have more water for its Chamber of Commerce to drink more toasts to its growth, more water to dilute its orange juice, more water for its geraniums to delight the tourists, while the giant cottonwoods have died. So now, this is the valley of desolation.” In retrospect, the greatest good for the greatest number was not served, as a 25,000,000 aqueduct was constructed without adequate storage above the intake. Had enough water been stored above the intake, the Owens Valley would not have been devastated as it was (Wood, 60).
The dust released following the draining of Owens Lake has been shown to be carcinogenic and remains inside lung tissue for the remainder of the person’s life. The amount of people impaired by the blowing dust particulates in 1987 was determined to be at least 50,000, leading to the EPA to declare the now dry lakebed to be the worst source of dust pollution within the entire U.S. mainland (Piper).
The cost of dust mitigation for the initial 43 square miles was $540 million, not including yearly maintenance costs of $17.5 million. The cost for replacement of the water pumped onto the lake is $24 million each year paid to water districts in the north state and Arizona. Yet despite all these expenses, the dust keeps blowing and the Clean Air Act standards were not yet met. However, until their recent troubles the DWP has profited over $200 million each year from selling off the Owens River water (Piper).
In 2010 the DWP made the first threat to the City Council to withhold the yearly contribution from Owens water sales unless another rate hike was approved, coming on the heels of a total 30 percent rate hike since the dust mitigation failures began. Mayor Villaraigosa encouraged approval of the rate hike, citing that the contribution from the DWP’s sales of Owens River water was keeping the city from entering into bankruptcy (Piper).
Water Agencies Promote Fear yet Ignore Legitimate Ecological Concerns (15)
When water management agencies have the resources to hold the public’s attention, their media campaign has consisted largely of public relations experts that promote hysteria of local economic collapse resulting from inability to access specific large supplies of water. Yet these same agencies promote near certainty that their water projects would not have any negative impacts on the ecosystem, despite the testimony of biologists, hydrologists that state there are known risks to mining groundwater at the levels so desired by the water management agencies. The legitimate concerns expressed by scientists about the risks of mining groundwater are dismissed as irrational paranoia by the water management public relations spin doctors, yet the constant drumbeat of threats of economic failure cited as “inability to grow” if the additional water supplies are not realized are considered reasonable fears by the water management agencies.
When local residents of regions targeted for water removal express concerns about the future of their communities if excessive amounts of groundwater are removed, the water management agency P.R. team paints them as eccentric, selfish and extremist. The proponents of the Owens Valley water transfer had the support of the bully pulpit of General H.G. Otis, owner and editor of the LA Times.
Otis found humor in how Eaton had fooled the ranchers of the Owens Valley at selling off their land. The ranchers initially thought that they were getting good deals when they sold at higher prices to the land hungry Eaton and he matched their offer, though now the joke was on them. In his glee at the victory of the LA water engineers over the naive rural Owens Valley ranchers, Otis gave away the true motives of Eaton and Mulholland in one lead sentence, “The cable that has held the San Fernando Valley vassal for ten centuries to the arid demon is about to be severed by the magic scimitar of modern engineering skill.” This should have raised red flags as the proponents of the Owens Valley water transfer cited the need was for the very survival of the City of Los Angeles, not for the San Fernando Valley (Reisner, 73).
Some inconsistencies appeared when Otis ran two more articles about a future development boom in the SFV while Mulholland stated publically that there was only enough water available for 10,000 new residents. However, time showed evidence of his false claims, despite a population increase of 300,000 residents over the eight years needed to complete the aqueduct, there was no water crisis. The route of the aqueduct was to go directly through the SFV as it would provide free underground storage that drained into the LA River’s broad alluvial aquifer. It would soon become clear that Mulholland had ulterior motives when it came to the SFV route’s benefits (Reisner, 76).
Reporter Henry Loewenthal, editor of the Examiner publically noticed Mulholland’s urgency to build the aqueducts and did not agree with his figures. These questions from a rival newspaper editor angered the LA Times Editor General H.G. Otis. There was also an ongoing media feud between Otis and Hearst’s Examiner, between Otis and the labor unions, and later between Otis and the Owens Valley residents who fought the aqueduct. Another suspicion Loewenthal had was when Otis formed an alliance with his former number one enemy, E.T. Earl from the Express. The publisher of Otis’s rival paper was singing the same praises of the Owens Valley aqueduct construction as his former enemy (Reisner, 74-7).
Loewenthal was not alone in his suspicions of the Owens Valley water transfer proponents. Local author Mary Austin who wrote “Land of Little Rain” predicted the growth of Los Angeles coming at the expense of the Owens Valley. She had knowledge of the desert ecosystem from living with the last of the Owens Valley Paiutes who remained in their original villages with their indigenous culture intact. In her novella “The Ford” she discussed the Owens Valley water grab predicting that the city engineers would take every last drop ceaselessly until it owned all the land and water rights to the river. During an interview with Mulholland Mary Austin mentioned this and he realized she was the first person to have completely understood their plan (Reisner, 81-2).
The San Francisco Chronicle was next in line to link the Owens Valley aqueduct to a land development scheme in the SFV. Their story ran on August 22, 1905 two days before Loewenthal’s article went to press in the Examiner. The SF Chronicle article wasn’t fact checked and was easily debunked by Otis as “Baseless Rumors” in his op-ed section of the LA Times. The Examiner article noted that the SFV land investors consisted of wealthy industrialists including trolley magnate Moses Sherman and his transport rival Henry Huntington, UP Railroad’s Edward Harriman, the Express publisher E.T. Earl, banker Joe Satori, energy magnate William Kerckhoff, Otis’s son in law Harry Chandler and several other powerful men. The signature on the $50,000 check that paid for the 250,000 acre feet of water rights was none other than that of General H.G. Otis. The Examiner article was two days late yet was fact checked and no longer easily debunked by Otis in his bullhorn LA Times editorials. The combined positions of influence found in the investor group made their plan possible. William Kerckhoff had an ear with Gifford Pinchot who in turn could influence President Theodore Roosevelt. Edward Harriman’s UP Railroad owned most of the right of way to land that would run parallel to the aqueduct. Trolley magnate Henry Huntingdon owned the building where the Reclamation Service’s regional headquarters was located (Reisner, 79).
In early September 1905 Hearst visited LA before the referendum vote, silenced his investigative journalist employee Loewenthal and wrote an editorial himself recommending a yes vote. The only remaining voice of opposition was Sam Clover’s Daily News, who noted the city workers were emptying the reservoirs into the ocean to make them dry in order to frighten the officials into voting yes. On Sept. 7, 1905 the referendum bond measure passed 14 to 1 in favor of the aqueduct. Thereafter the LA Times praised the aqueduct and began a campaign to vilify anyone including the Inyo Register who questioned the water transfer project or mentioned the disaster awaiting Owens Valley (Reisner, 80-1).
The final step after the local referendum was granted was to get approval from Congress, the water transfer proponents needed to get right of way for the aqueduct that crossed a great deal of federal land. Transfer proponent California Senator Frank Flint introduced a bill that would grant right of way across federal land and also keep the land quarantined for three years to enable time for the city engineers to purchase the land. The bill favored by the water transfer proponents enraged Senator Sylvester Smith from Bakersfield, knowing it was only a ruse to benefit wealthy industrialists like Otis and his fellow investors at the expense of the people of Smith’s district. Since he needed to remain reasonable despite his outrage, Sen. Smith proposed a plan where LA could get a portion of the Owens River water providing that additional retention sites be constructed, that Owens Valley have a first right to the water and that no surplus water would be used for irrigation of the SFV (Reisner, 83).
Mulholland compromised with Smith’s proposal for the time being then secretly sent Sen. Flint who petitioned the U.S. Forest Service head Gifford Pinchot to support the bill without the provision that surplus water not be used to irrigate SFV land. The argument was that the water should be for the “greater good of the greater number” and the small rural Owens Valley was just not worth saving. Flint also claimed that LA would be economically doomed if it did not get the Owens Valley water. He knew that the politics of Pinchot were claims of progressivism that in reality were pragmatic damage controls to prevent the capitalists from provoking an outright socialist revolution by their overt excesses and harsh rhetoric angering the workers. The chief water transfer proponent Otis was dealing with the anger of his mistreated workers who bombed his printing plant in 1910 after he incited their rage through his slanderous editorials. (Reisner, 84-5).
J.P. Lippencott and others wrote in their reports to Pres. Roosevelt that the water was to be only for domestic uses in L.A. The reports requested that Roosevelt strike out any provisions that prevented the water from being used for irrigation (Wood, pg. 23).
Without bothering to fact check Sen. Flint’s claims that LA required so much additional water, Pres. Roosevelt immediately approved the revised plan despite the objections of Interior Secretary Ethan Hitchcock. The original author of the plan Sen. Smith was never contacted by Roosevelt to hear his side of the story. Despite his public image as a trust-buster and monopoly breaker, Roosevelt’s next decisions would assist the cabal of wealthy industrialists awaiting delivery of their blue gold. In 1907 when the Reclamation Service abandoned the Owens Valley Project the hundreds of thousands of acres of public land were converted into the Inyo National Forest to prevent any homesteaders from claiming water rights. This action by Gifford Pinchot may have been one of the only illegal acts used to create the forest, as a National Forest cannot be created for agricultural purposes according to the Organic Act. Following the termination of the OVP Reclamation Service employee Lippincott resigned from his government job and took a double in pay when he began officially working for Mulholland (Reisner, 86-7).
During a meeting in the Owens Valley on March 15, 1923 Mulholland talked with George Watterson, Leicester Hall and William Symons about to discuss water rights. George was the uncle and rival of Wilfred and Mark Watterson from Inyo Bank, and also an officer in the Bishop Creek Ditch and Owens River Canal Company. Within 24 hours George Watterson, Hall and Symons had used their companies to secure the water rights to over two thirds of the McNally Ditch for one million paid by the city. As more farmers and ranchers from the McNally Ditch cooperative sold off their land it became increasingly difficult for those who resisted. Critical information about the landholder’s financial status was stolen from the ditch cooperatives by Leicester Hall, helping to put pressure on the most economically vulnerable to sell at lower prices (Reisner, 93-4).
After attempts by Mulholland to prevent diversions above the intake valve by demolishing the intake of the Big Pine Canal, the remaining farmers realized that they would need to take more drastic action. On May 21, 1924 several farmers dynamited a large section of the aqueduct (Reisner, 96-7).
On November 16, 1924 a group led by Mark Watterson opened the Alabama Gates and began releasing water into the Owens Lake. Mulholland was outraged and sent detectives to make them close the gates, but they remained a safe distance from the scene. The initial group of men were soon joined by women and children, a nearby movie set sent over an orchestra and a festive atmosphere lasted for days. Since General Otis’s death the LA Times had changed their tone towards the Owens Valley residents. Instead of calling them bomb throwing anarchists as Otis had done, the new LA Times said they were hardworking Americans who had “put themselves hopelessly in the wrong by taking the law into their own hands, but that is not to say that there had not been a measure of justice on their side.” The Alabama Gates were closed after a few days, though on May 27, 1927 the No Name Siphon was dynamited. This led to armed detectives with shoot to kill orders being dispatched to the Owens Valley (Reisner, 98-9).
Just before the conflict became bloody the Watterson brothers Inyo County Bank was under investigation for embezzlement. The brothers were convicted and the Inyo County Bank shut down on August 4, 1927, taking the rest of the Owens Valley with it (Reisner, 100-1).
The potential for the Owens Valley to grow independently without interference was taken away by several individuals who felt that making a fast buck at the expense of another was acceptable. The ecosystems of Owens Valley and Lake (OVL) were also prevented from using their salt tolerant brine shrimp food pyramid to continue attracting migratory birds. The amount of ecological and economic damage inflicted upon the OVL ecosystem was monumental over place and time.
The decades of damages were accumulated into increased fees for the ratepayers of L.A. and the exponential development of the SFV from the water heist created yearly smog. The L.A. region would have grown in a steadier and more sustainable manner without the Owens water heist and obtained enough water to support reasonable growth. The financial benefits accrued by Eaton, Mulholland, Otis and others of the early proponents of the transfer were only possible from the Owens heist producing surplus for the SFV where their real estate investments were located.
Going into the future the ratepayers will need to consider if this process of ongoing water theft is ethically justified or even financially viable. The costs of mitigation are based upon ongoing problems that will not improve of the Owens Valley and Lake to not receive the water lost for nearly a century. The problem of dust can be solved by gradually filling the Owens Lake with enough water to cover it at least one foot deep. This will solve the dust problem and also enable the return of massive quantities of brine shrimp and the migratory birds that they support. This gradual filling of Owens Lake would not require total loss of the aqueduct water and could happen over time. This would be the most effective dust mitigation measure to date, as the other attempts at dust mitigation by the LADWP were all deemed expensive and unreliable.
Owens Lake Dust Mitigation by LADWP is Costly to Ratepayers and Environmentally Ineffective (16)
In 2004 the DWP violated the LTWA agreement by mining groundwater from the Big Pine well site in 20 year cumulative annual pumping volumes in excess of the 20 year cumulative estimated annual recharge. The USGS estimate of yearly pumping volume that would still protect vegetation is 70,000 acre feet per year (ac/ft/yr). However, this number may be more than the vegetation can handle. When the worst pumping impacts occurred from 1970 – ’86 the DWP was removing 93,792 ac/ft/yr and from 1987 – ’05 was increased to 95,756 ac/ft/yr (OVC, Manning).
The response of the DWP to Inyo County’s dispute of the LTWA agreement being honored by DWP was that the impacts to meadow vegetation were a result of overgrazing livestock and vehicle tracks. However, this can be disproven as vegetation cover has increased in regions with grazing and vehicle use though without any groundwater pumping (OVC, Manning).
Another inconsistency from the DWP occurred when Inyo County disputed the DWP’s 2001-02 pumping program that chose to mitigate after making no attempts to avoid pumping impacts. This is in direct violation of the LTWA’s EIR that states avoiding any impacts is a primary goal while mitigation after the impacts occur is a secondary goal (OVC, Manning).
Another deception by DWP is to circumvent the LTWA’s vegetation protection goals by averaging vegetative cover for haphazardly selected groups of parcels instead of studying each parcel as an individual unit. This selection process results in high vegetation cover values being used to cancel out low vegetation cover values and neglecting to mention the impacted parcels (OVC, Manning).
The variations in yearly runoff and aquifer recharge for Owens Lake can differ greatly. However, prior to the groundwater pumping by DWP, the natural variations in precipitation did not impact the valley’s groundwater level as large springs, bodies of water at the surface and vegetation buffered the water loss. Before the DWP’s groundwater pumping beginning in 1970, data shows few connections between small fluctuations in the water table and extreme changes in runoff and recharge from precipitation. Following the DWP pumping, springs dried up and vegetation died. The loss of protective buffers such as springs and vegetation resulted in groundwater levels responding directly with changes in precipitation. The DWP ignored their role in removing the protective buffers of springs, seeps and vegetation and claimed that groundwater levels dropped because of drier years of precipitation. The facts missed by the DWP are that their pumping converted the valley’s hydrology from a previously protected buffered system to an unprotected unbuffered system unable to resist yearly changes in precipitation (OVC, Manning).
An example of the loss of protective buffers was evidenced over several following the beginning of the groundwater pumping by DWP. In 1986 the DWP measured live vegetation cover in parcel Laws 52 at 30%, though in 2004 the cover had dropped to around 9%. The type of vegetation went from groundwater dependent meadow grasses to shrubs and invasive weeds such as Russian thistle (OVC, Manning).
Following damage to endemic wildlife as a result of the diversions, the LADWP is under legal obligation to compensate. This gave rise to the Lower Owens River Project (LORP) that will require restoring 62 miles of the lower Owens River and creating, maintaining and enhancing wetlands habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife (OVC, CJK).
Following a series of delays, in 2005 an Inyo County Superior Court Judge ordered flows returned to the Owens River beginning January, 2007 or risk loss of their second aqueduct. In December of 2006 DWP began base flows of 40 cubic feet per second to enter the lower Owens River. In February of 2008, DWP began seasonal habitat flow that mimics natural flooding with the expectation that the increased flow will spread cottonwood and willow seeds along with the sediments to enhance germination (OVC, CJK).
In 1998 the DWP was required by the EPA to begin implementation of a plan for remediation of the blowing dust problem or be penalized $10,000 each day. Their chosen method was to contract the engineering consultant corporation CH2M Hill to attempt remediation, though the first year they only managed to get their earth moving machines stuck in the med. This corporation was described by activist Naomi Klein as participating in “disaster profiteering” and was awarded one of the no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq. Following their escapades in the mud, CH2M Hill needed to bring in specialized truck tires and to build elevated platforms. Then their attempts at irrigating salt grass were derailed when the salt clogged up the sprinklers, which then formed a salt crust on the lake’s surface. The salt crust was dry and contributed to additional particulate dust pollution. The salt also leached downwards and entered the shallow water table, which rose and killed the salt grass (Piper).
Following the remediation some of the migratory birds that visited Owens Lake in large numbers before the drainage have returned to some sections where small amounts of water are present. However, these recent returns are a fraction of the original numbers that visited the lake when it was undisturbed by drainage. According to zoologist Joseph Grinnell who visited the lake in 1917, “Great numbers of water birds are in sight along the lake shore — avocets, phalaropes, ducks. Large flocks of shorebirds in flight over the water in the distance…now silvery now dark, against the gray-blue of the water. There must be literally thousands of birds within sight of this one spot.” (Piper)
Unfortunately the sections containing water are separated by berms and each one has different colors and mineral contents. Some of the red coloration is a result of algae, though others are tainted with high concentrations of toxic metals. In 2003 twenty gulls were found dead from elevated levels of sodium in their brains. Other birds tested had elevated levels of mercury, selenium, cadmium and other heavy metals. The eggs of avocets and snowy plovers contained elevated levels of arsenic, boron and barium. The Audubon Society bird count estimated 46,000 birds present from 112 different species (Piper).
The North American Migratory Birds Treaty Act protects the birds coming to Owens Lake from being disturbed during their nesting season. This creates a conflict for the DWP, who tries to turn the water off from July to October after the end of the dust season, though July is also snowy plover nesting season who require water for their chicks to survive. Out of an original lakeshore habitat of 46,932 acres, the DWP has decided to provide only 1,000 acres for the snowy plover habitat. The state has mandated that the DWP keep at least 272 adult plovers as a baseline amount. However, the remaining 45,932 acres remain hostile territory for any plovers looking to expand their numbers (Piper).
The DWP’s Area A1-4 is used to experiment with methods of controlling dust without using any water so that the birds protected by the Treaty Act will stop returning. One recent experiment has fences next to moats in effort to catch the sand and collect it in the moats. The DWP discovered that after the sand was removed from the moats and transported to shallow flood ponds, the depth was too shallow and the sand needed to be spread out. The sand built up along the fences needed to be removed with an excavator, dump trucks and other heavy equipment. The project dubbed “Moat and Row” was ended when it was learned that the fences were providing perches for predators of the snowy plover and that the plovers were getting trapped in the moats (Piper).
Following the failure of the moats and fences, the next experiment was to cover almost the entire lakebed with solar panels. The cost of installing between 40 to 80 square miles of solar panels was $500 million dollars, equal to the entire dust mitigation expenses from the start. In July 2010 the results for the solar panel experiment were another failure. The solar panels sank several inches into the corrosive soil, scraping the silicon off the surface of the panels (Piper).
Mitigation measures by the LADWP such as moats and solar panels have shown themselves to be expensive and ineffective. This leaves the most reasonable option being the long term goal of restoration of Owens Lake and Valley.
Restoration of Owens Lake and Owens Valley Aquifer Benefits All (17)
Since the problems caused by blowing dust and lowered ground water have not ceased, the price remains steep for the small benefit of a green lawn that is mostly for show and has few practical uses. By covering Owens Lake with a few feet of water would help replenish the aquifer and prevent any blowing dust from impacting the ecosystem. The sacrifice of having lawns could replace the water lost and the gains for the ecosystem and migrating birds would be tremendous. There are advances in water saving appliances, rainwater harvesting, recycling and other means of direct conservation and interception that would make up for the remaining water lost to restoration of Owens Lake. There can also be incentives for people from LA to relocate to the towns of the Owens Valley and thus reduce demand on consumption. This would have happened if Owens Valley were allowed to grow without the loss of most of their water supply following the aqueduct’s construction. Instead the development of the SFV following the water grab contributed to poorly planned suburban sprawl and results in one of the worst air qualities from smog of millions of cars emitting CO2, CO, NOx and other pollutants.
Having water in Owens Lake would help restore the aquifer of Owens Valley by direct infiltration from the surface into the groundwater below. Reducing groundwater pumping of the Owens Valley groundwater combined with downward percolation of Owens Lake water should be enough recharge potential to raise groundwater levels to the vertical elevation position where springs and seeps can once again emerge on the surface.
Scientists and Experts Predict Hydrological Disaster from SNWA Pipeline (18)
The ecological disaster at Owens Lake presents an opportunity for the people of Nevada to learn from the mistakes of others and not have the same problem occur there. The impact to the Owens Lake ecosystem from the water transfer will be costly to fix and has caused immeasurable harm to the community over the decades. Just as there were warnings from experts and scientists about the impending Owens Lake tragedy, there are several warnings from credible experts about the hydrogeological risks of tampering with the aquifers of northern and central Nevada.
Testimony from U.S. Dept. of Interior hydrogeologist Dr. Paula Cutillo, Ph.D. on 8/4/06 for the Nevada State Engineer demonstrates the inaccuracy of the SNWA experts when they attempt to determine the certainty of a safe outcome if the pipeline extracts the amount proposed. The computer models performed by Dr. Cutillo indicate a 200 foot drawdown of groundwater levels after 75 years of extractions and a cone of depression that reaches beyond the hydrographic boundaries of the Spring Valley. The cone of depression is a circular region where the water table is lowered at a higher rate than the surrounding region (NPS, Cutillo).
SNWA Pipeline Proponents Who Would Benefit Financially from Water Transfer (19)
Proponents of the SNWA pipeline claim the pipeline from the Snake and Spring Valley to Las Vegas would be needed for the region to “grow economically”, citing opponents of the pipeline scheme are uncaring about the city’s economic survival. However, when examining the future beneficiaries of the pipeline include a myriad of developers in a city already undergoing one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation, the motive to have this water in place in preparation for an upswing in the housing market becomes apparent. When the SNWA pipeline proponents include the beneficiary Harvey Whittemore as one of the original funders, the location of his development project “Coyote Springs” on U.S. 93 and the NV 168 with plans of 100,000 more homes would leave him a near billionaire should the plans come to fruition. For Mr. Whittemore to retire a billionaire two factors need to occur simultaneously, an eventual recovery of the housing market and the completed construction of the SNWA pipeline that would parallel the U.S. 93 corridor where most of the development is located. As there is insufficient groundwater available at the current site of Coyote Springs to enable such grandiose development schemes, the construction and availability of the pipeline and at least two decades worth of groundwater available prior to aquifer drawdown and ecosystem collapse are needed for Mr. Whittemore to retire as a billionaire before the lawsuits begin. The time frame of two decades is a reasonable guess based upon the reduced rates of aquifer recharge and the rates of discharge and additional withdrawals by the SNWA pipeline.
It is difficult to prove that the SNWA and DWP bureaucrats benefit directly from the water transfers outside of the correlation between their significant salaries and political influence and the election campaign contributions and support from the developer lobbyists. However, in the case of SNWA pipeline proponent and General Manager Pat Mulroy, the chance of being voted out of office is now removed. There are only elections for the Board, and Gen. Mulroy appears to be at the helm of the SNWA for her entire natural existence.
During a public comment to the Nevada State Engineer on Oct. 7th, 2011 held in Carson City and simulcast in Ely, Caliente and Las Vegas, the SNWA pipeline proponents were primarily limited to those directly involved in the housing construction and development industries. Opponents of the SNWA pipeline came from a diverse background and included Native Americans of the Paiute, Goshute and Shoshone nations, ranchers, environmentalists and even Las Vegas city residents who were aware of the hidden costs and did not wish to shoulder the financial or ecological burden this pipeline would place upon their shoulders. Another fallacy of our modern society is that construction and development can continue to expand indefinitely across space and time without placing additional burdens on the regional ecosystem. Land that is undeveloped should not be seen as wasted, this land in its’ natural state provides housing to a myriad of desert species. Perhaps those individuals who depend upon construction jobs for their income should be supported and redirected to rehabilitation of older existing homes of the urban core of Las Vegas instead of enabling further suburban sprawl.
Conclusion – Water Transfers are Ecologically Destructive, Other Alternatives Available (20)
Removal of water from one specific region to benefit development in another region is destructive to the ecosystem of the dewatered region. The similarities between aquifer and lake water removal is that the previous quantity of water that existed there prior to removal and transfer was playing an important role for the ecosystem. In the Owens Lake, River and Valley ecosystem there was significant removal of both lake water and groundwater that resulted in a loss of habitat and food source for millions of migratory birds and many other species. This includes the loss of the brine shrimp base of the regional food pyramid that have evolved to survive the harsh salinity of Owens Lake. These brine shrimp were available for thousands of years for the dining needs of the migratory birds either coming from or going to South and Central America. The removal and transfer of the water in Owens Lake resulted in a long term loss of a critical food source for the migratory birds.
Since the time of the original water transfer from Owens Lake nearly a century ago ecological conditions have not improved and have in many instances gotten worse. The air pollution from blowing dust of the exposed lake surface continues to plague human and non-human residents of the Owens Valley. The migratory birds that once remembered Owens Lake as a critical refueling stop no longer have a reason to remain there and are forced to migrate onwards with lower energy. Over time many migratory birds do not survive the grueling trek as they did not dine on brine shrimp to boost their endurance. This results in an overall decline in the populations of migratory birds who have an important rest stop removed from their mental maps.
The groundwater withdrawals along the Owens Valley in the 1970s soon dewatered the aquifers and then dried up any seeps and springs where groundwater met the surface. As happened with the removal of water from Owens Lake the loss of groundwater along the valley also resulted in a decline of endemic species that once depended upon the seep and spring ecosystem for their survival. We can expect the results of this groundwater withdrawal from Owens Valley of California to be similar if the SNWA builds their pipeline and removes aquifer water from the Snake and Spring Valley region of eastern Nevada. The nearly identical geology and climate of OVL and SSV indicate almost parallel outcomes from the effects of water transfer. The amount of water removed from the SSV aquifer as proposed by the SNWA is far greater than water recharged by current rates of precipitation. The law of groundwater physics indicates that if the rate of discharge exceeds the rate of recharge the inevitable result will be a drop in the elevation level of the aquifer level. Since seeps and springs exist at specific elevation levels where there is an exit point the drop in aquifer levels will prevent water from flowing onto the surface. The endemic species of springs and seeps such as spring snails and descendants of ancient fish from Lake Bonneville will most likely become extirpated and/or extinct from the SSV ecosystem as a result of groundwater removal by the SNWA pipeline.
It is not irrational or extreme to predict a likely outcome of spring and seep loss from excessive withdrawals and transfers as this prediction is based upon countless other instances elsewhere when groundwater withdrawals exceeded the rate of recharge. The Owens Valley is the most geologically similar to the Snake and Spring Valley ecosystem and can be used as a comparison. It is far more illogical and fanatical to suggest as the SNWA does that miracles can occur when the amount of water removed will exceed the amount of water recharged each year and yet somehow the aquifer level will not become significantly lower to where the seeps and springs would no longer emerge at the surface. Insanity can be defined as repeating the same behavior patterns yet expecting different results each time. Removing water from lakes or aquifers at higher rates than they can be recharged and then claiming that their ecosystems can remain intact with far less water available than under normal drought conditions qualifies as insanity. For human society to cease being considered insane there needs to be serious reevaluation of water transfers as being beneficial for the “greater good”. Harming one region by dewatering ecosystems to encourage rapid development in another region with excess water isn’t good for either side in the long term. The supposed beneficiaries of the water transfer are left with smog from the rapid sprawling development that was only possible with the excessive water stolen from the Owens Valley and imported to the SFV. In addition to regular air pollution from sprawl the long term ecological consequences of dewatering Owens Lake will remain a financial obligation for the L.A. ratepayers for decades if the DWP refuses to compromise and allow for realistic restoration of Owens Lake ecosystem. The same problem from leapfrog development could occur in the Las Vegas region as the planned suburban sprawl developments such as Coyote Springs depend upon water stolen from another region of Nevada.
The treatment of Owens Valley by the original proponents of the aqueduct and the current administration of the LADWP is nothing less than geographical bullying. The original proponents of the water transfer and the DWP bureaucrats used their political power and financial clout to force the struggling Owens Valley residents into accepting a deal that was deadly to their continued way of life. Along with losses suffered by human residents from the DWP water transfer the ecosystems of Owens Lake, River and Valley were all severely damaged by the loss of water following the transfer. What is most bizarre is that this geographical bullying of Owens Valley by LADWP bureaucrats has been enabled and allowed to continue by supposedly responsible regulatory agencies like the EPA. One comparison would be if teachers (EPA) encouraged a bigger and stronger child bully (LADWP) to begin robbing a smaller and weaker peer (Owens Valley) of their lunch money in kindergarten and then allowed this behavior to continue until graduation from high school. Would the teacher ignoring the bullying of the weaker child for years be responsible if the weaker child one day snapped and decided to resort to greater violence and retaliate against the larger bully by using a weapon to achieve a closer balance of strength? Have humans not witnessed the tenacity of small bands of guerrilla fighters to continue resisting much larger forces of government armies with far better weapons? The very origin of the U.S. is based upon the concept of resistance against tyranny and was accomplished in reality by ragged revolutionaries battling King George’s British soldiers who came in larger numbers and were much better armed. The key to victory for the U.S. revolution against Britain was the use of guerilla warfare and innovative tactics that involved unexpected attacks and quick retreats into the forests. One could imagine a small group of committed eco-activists performing similar tactics on the hundreds of miles of aqueducts over the years, encouraging the LADWP to reconsider the cost effectiveness of the aqueduct project.
Cultural genocide against indigenous nations such as the Paiute and Goshute has been a part of the formative years of the United States. How unfortunate that the post-Columbus immigrants could not understand the ecological wisdom of the indigenous nations that took only what they needed from their surroundings and managed to live in relative harmony without disrupting aquifers and lakes. Perhaps in the early years we can excuse this behavior to general ignorance of science and ecology, yet today we cannot feign ignorance to the results of our collective actions. If we the people of the modern U.S. continue to displace indigenous nations like the Paiute and the Goshute from their ancestral homes by forced removal of their water sources so that some developers can turn a fast profit, than we are continuing on the path of cultural genocide against the indigenous nations of North America. Forcing indigenous nations away from their ancestral lands and cultures by stealing their water and then encouraging them to live in cities and assimilate with non-indigenous cultures is the very definition of cultural genocide. That is the end result of water removal and transfers, the loss of ecosystems and the indigenous nations that relied upon these habitats for their cultural and physical survival.
Collectively human society needs to reevaluate the wisdom of water removal and transfers as a viable option for sustaining metropolitan regions in the desert. Based upon the political motivations of the proponents of the Owens Valley water transfer and the wealth they netted from their SFV real estate sales based upon stolen water it is clear that there was no net benefit for the general public from this process. The residents of L.A. who had the aqueduct built in their name and supposedly for their benefit were unaware of the deceptions used to obtain the water until much later on. The L.A. ratepayers had already bought and paid for their supposed reward from the aqueduct prior to understanding the long term consequences of water transfers. By the time the L.A. ratepayers did discover the hidden costs of the aqueduct the original proponents who had profited tremendously from their SFV real estate sales that was possible because of extra water stolen from Owens Valley were then ready for a well-funded retirement plan. The original proponents of the Owens Valley water transfer had considerable financial capital available from General Otis and other wealthy business interests so they could purchase land in Owens Valley and SFV. On the other hand the ratepayers of L.A. were dependent upon water and could be easily scared into believing that they must help pay for this proposed aqueduct from the Owens Valley of their city would suddenly dry up and blow away in a dust cloud. It was only several years later that the L.A. ratepayers have learned that the scare tactics of drought were simple deceptions used by the Owens Valley proponents who were interested in making their financial gain from the SFV real estate sales at the expense of the ecosystem and human communities along the Owens Valley. Of course by then it was too late as the aqueduct had been constructed and was now the financial responsibility of the ratepayers. To this day the ecological consequences of water removal and transfer from Owens Lake remain the financial responsibility of the L.A. ratepayers.
Instead of depending on costly and ecologically destructive water transfers, options for self-reliance and rain water harvesting exist for Las Vegas and the L.A. ratepayers also. Having direct roof to underground storage rainwater harvesting systems available for every resident, business and government building would prevent losses of rainwater to runoff. An additional benefit of rainwater harvesting is the prevention of pollution to watersheds from storm runoff picking up non-point source pollutants in the streets. The regular summer monsoon season of the desert southwest causes large amounts of rainwater to fall in a short time frame, often causing flash flooding on roadways. The flash flooding is compounded by hard baked desert caliche soils and human created impermeable surfaces such as sidewalks and pavement. Rooftops of buildings are another form of impermeable surface that contributes to runoff. The equation would be total surface area of pavement in addition to total surface area of rooftops equals the total amount of surface area that contributes to runoff. Rooftop rainwater harvesting combined with underground storage cisterns results in subtracting the rooftop surface area of rainwater amounts contributing to flash flood runoff amounts.
When discussing the potential for job creation, the SNWA proponents of the pipeline neglect to mention these are short term jobs and the retrofitting of Las Vegas buildings with rainwater harvest systems would provide ongoing jobs for the long term future of the region. Unlike the proposed pipeline jobs, the long term careers available from retrofitting buildings with rainwater storage systems would allow ranching jobs to continue in the Snake and Spring Valley and would maintain SSV aquifer dependent ecosystems and indigenous communities indefinitely without disruption. That is the advantage of investing in reliable local storage and conservation options instead of water removal and transfers from regions afar. A third benefit of rainwater harvesting in addition to the extra harvest water storage potential and the prevention of flash flooding is the harnessing of gravitational potential energy from the downwards motion of water. Consider the energy required during evaporation to lift all those gallons of water moving upwards against gravity from sea level into clouds hovering thousands of feet in the air. In physics this is termed potential energy because the eventual motion of this atmospheric water is downwards along with the force of gravity. This potential energy of falling rainwater can be included in rainwater harvesting systems during the travel to filtration devices by installing turbine propellers inside the tubes that are rotated by the water traveling downwards. As the concept with windmills, the water turns the propeller as it travels down the tubes towards the filters and storage cisterns and these turbines are connecting to electric chargers and harnessed for energy. Every year residents of desert cities will experience summer monsoon storms that flood their streets, though with rainwater harvest systems installed on most large buildings and throughout residential neighborhoods people can monitor energy gains from potential energy of rainwater and quantity of water stored while having considerably less overall surface area of runoff flooding into their streets.
Another option for increasing underground water storage locally includes a restorative makeover of the Los Angeles River and the Las Vegas Wash from concrete channels to a complete greenway corridor wide enough to contain floodplain water retention ponds. Under current conditions the concrete channel of the L.A. River rushes the rainwater out to the ocean without capturing any for underground storage. The Las Vegas Wash loses water to transpiration from trees lining the channel on the lower section. The upper section of Las Vegas Wash has the most potential for aquifer storage yet at this location is a concrete channel This yearly loss of potential water for underground storage from both rivers would be saved by simply giving the flood water enough width to spread out across a natural river floodplain channel with permeable gravel soils that allow downwards percolation. When a river floods across the increased width of a permeable floodplain, the storm water infiltrates directly into the ground and is stored in the aquifer below the riverbed. This natural recharge would happen every year during the winter rainy season and the cumulative effect on the local aquifers would allow for additional storage and use during the dry summers. Two additional benefits of river floodplain restoration are prevention of flooding by giving the river water more space to spread out laterally and a net gain in riparian habitat along the restored floodplain.
By using rooftop rainwater harvesting and enhancing underground storage potential of local rivers by widening floodplains, desert cities like L.A. and Las Vegas can increase their yearly water supply without causing ecological destruction and geographical bullying by using outdated water removal and transfer.
“The Owens Valley as I Knew It” by Robert Coke Wood published in Bishop, CA
“Cadillac Desert” Reisner, Marc
“Dreams, Dust and Birds: The Trashing of Owens Lake” by Karen Piper http://places.designobserver.com/feature/dreams-dust-and-birds-the-trashing-of-owens-lake/23328/
Owens Valley Committee (OVC); Darla Heil, Daniel Pritchett, Sally Manning, Ph.D., Ceal Klingler, Mike Prather
Featured article, “Desertification illustrated” by Sally Manning http://www.ovcweb.org/index.asp
Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Nation Website http://www.goshutewater.org/
Paiute Bishop Tribe Water Law http://www.bishoppaiutetribe.com/assets/ordinances/WaterLaw.pdf
Owens Valley http://lorlie6.hubpages.com/hub/My-Raped-Paradise
Witness Statement from Dr. Paula Cutillo; on 8/4/06 at the Nevada State Engineer Hearings http://water.nv.gov/hearings/past/spring/exhibits/August_4th/USDI/Exhibits/Exhibit_2504/Report/Cutillo-Witness-Statement.pdf