L.A. Returns Water to the Owens Valley For nearly a century, California has diverted the Owens River, sending its water 200 miles south to feed the ever-growing needs of Los Angeles. After years of litigation, L.A.'s mayor flipped a switch, returning the water to the river.
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L.A. Returns Water to the Owens Valley

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L.A. Returns Water to the Owens Valley

L.A. Returns Water to the Owens Valley

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos in for Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

An old battle over water took a major turn yesterday when the city of Los Angeles started giving water back. For the better part of a the century, L.A. has been siphoning water from a place called the Owens Valley, some 200 miles north of the city. That's the water that has kept one of the nation's great cities hydrated.

Now, after all these years and countless court battles, L.A. is trying to make up for turning much of the Owens Valley into a dustbowl.

Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN: One hundred years ago, Owens Valley was thriving with wildlife and water. Located at the base of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains, the runoff kept the Owens River full. But then L.A., led by the city's visionary water engineer, William Mulholland, built a 233-milelong aqueduct, tapping the valley dry. That was back in 1913, and as lore has it, when the first Owens Valley water flowed into L.A. Mulholland shouted to eager onlookers, there it is, take it.

Yesterday, L.A.'s Department of Water and Power Board President David Nahai stood before hundreds of Owens Valley residents, many long-time adversaries, and tried to make amends.

Mr. DAVID NAHAI (President, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power): I want to say from L.A. that our message to our brothers and sisters of the Owens Valley will be, there it is, take it back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles, California): One, two, three.

Unidentified Woman: Yay!

(Soundbite of applause)

KAHN: L.A.'s mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, pushed the button that sent the thousands of gallons of pristine Sierra water back into the dry Owens River channel.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: By opening these gates today, we'll demonstrate to the world that the great city of Los Angeles is prepared to own up to its history, that we can thrive in a partnership and in balance with our neighbors and with the environment of the eastern Sierra.

KAHN: That partnership means the city will give up about one-twentieth of the water it normally diverts to the aqueduct. It'll send a constant flow down 62 winding miles of river and restore hundreds of acres of dormant wetlands.

Miles downstream from the ceremonies, the DWP's chief biologist Brian Tillemans walks through the brittle brush at the dry riverbank.

Mr. BRIAN TILLEMANS (Chief Biologist, Department of Water and Power): This section here, which is the upper dry section, is probably going to have the greatest transformation of any reaches of the river.

KAHN: He says it will take days before the released water makes it to this spot, and years before the willows and wildlife make a comeback.

Mr. TILLEMANS: Within a short span, you know, five to seven years, you're going to see this desert brush die off and we'll start to see the water-loving species of plants overtake the desert shrubs you see right now.

KAHN: Along with the plants will come warm water fish and shore birds, and that could help turn the valley's depressed economy, says Kathleen New of the Long Pine Chamber of Commerce. She hopes once the river is running again, tourists will start flowing too.

Ms. KATHLEEN NEW (Executive Director, Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce): Families can come here from the south and see what water looks like when it's not coming out of the faucet, get an idea of the water that they drink.

KAHN: But this massive effort to return some of the river's water has not erased the animosity that runs deep in the valley.

Ms. SANDRA JEFFERSON-YONGE (Tribal Leader, Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe): I think it's just a fa├žade. It's a band-aid job.

KAHN: Sandra Jefferson-Yonge is a tribal leader of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Indians. They've been fighting Los Angeles for decades. Besides siphoning the river, L.A. also drained Owens Lake, leaving a huge dry bed of white dusty sediment laced with heavy metals.

On windy days, tons of toxic dust sweeps across the valley. Jefferson-Yonge says the dust caused her asthma. She says L.A. is trying to settle the dust pollution only because of a court order.

Ms. JEFFERSON-YONGE: So it's not because they want to do it, it's because they're forced to do it.

KAHN: In fact, the latest river and wetland restoration project was also the result of decades of litigation, and the work is three years behind schedule. It wasn't until the judge imposed daily fines and threatened to shut off L.A.'s aqueduct that the river water was restored.

Standing on the still dry banks of the Owens River, DWP biologist Brian Tillemans says the restoration will make amends for the past when everybody comes and enjoys the restored fisheries and wildlife.

Mr. TILLEMANS: Once you build a habitat, they will come. Kind of a famous saying, but it's really true.

KAHN: As if to make his point, Tillemans spots a small sora rail marsh bird, once plentiful in the valley. He says that's a sign that nature can heal old wounds.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Lone Pine, California.

INSKEEP: Well, you can see that bird, along with historic photos of William Mulholland's visionary project, by going to our Web site NPR.org.

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