This week's post is a guest post from friend of The Longest Straw Mike Prather. I look at the Los Angeles Aqueduct when I cross it each day and I see a barbed wire fence along a concrete ditch. The fence keeps the dog and cattle out. People too? A DWP helicopter has flown the ditch every morning around 9:30AM since 9/11. The slow current contours along the base of the Alabama Hills flowing downhill. It looks organic yet it is highly engineered. Gravity is easy.
I have driven across the Los Angeles Aqueduct when leaving my home and returning for over 30 years. There is no way to town, Highway 395 – out of the Owens Valley without crossing that ditch. It registers. It is there, like the valley, the sky and the mountains, but instead as an intrusion.
Lone Pine Creek ran through our town before the aqueduct was finished in 1913. Neighborhoods had water ditches and a creek. You could hear them at night while sleeping. Kids could play in them and horses could stop and drink. That is all gone. Lone Pine was unlucky enough to sit below the aqueduct. Lone Pine Creek’s dry bed is a dip in Bush Street that no one even thinks about.
I moved to Lone Pine in 1980, 67 years after the Los Angeles Aqueduct cut off LonePine Creek and all other streams from here to Mono County. It was fifty some years after Owens Lake vanished along with 62 miles of the Owens River. This valley was permanently changed. Los Angeles grew and created billions in wealth while the Owens Valley breathed lake dust for the next 90 years. Towns shriveled, orchards and farmhouses were bulldozed.
Since I moved here to Lone Pine, a feeling of injustice more or less permeates me. I’m local that way. I lived in Death Valley for eight years before moving here so I know what dry is. I know what it looks like. I have chosen to work on problems such as Owens Lake habitat and wildlife, re-watering the Lower Owens River and on the water and land management practices of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power – the City’s agent here in our valley. Environmental and social justice motivates if you are on the losing end. Should we cal it ‘our’ valley?
“Pee in the aqueduct because LA needs the water,” neighbors sometimes say. My daughter lives in Los Angeles so I don’t Monkey Wrench by waving willie at the water. There are alternatives, but they can come with risk. Working on water and land issues in the Owens Valley puts you out there. People watch your actions and words to gauge which side you’re on. Some residents care. Some could care less.
Years ago many here raised the white flag. “LA is too big,’ they said. Others held out for fair buyouts of their ranches and farms by Los Angeles while some spent 10 years or so dynamiting the aqueduct and wells in the 1920’s and 30’s.
My water war started when I learned of the Second Los Angeles Aqueduct. This is the aqueduct that no one knows about, yet it is the cause of all the Owens Valley water strife since 1970. The Second Los Angeles Aqueduct led to massive and destructive groundwater pumping and the discontinuing of irrigation on 10,000 acres of pastures in the Owens Valley. I fight in this war.
My style is to work together with Los Angeles when possible and oppose LA, even in court, when necessary. “The iron fist in the velvet glove,” my friend Eldon always told me. If you are an activist you attend infinite meetings. LADWP either runs the meeting or sits in the front row. “They wait to see who isn’t coming any more. They’re just waiting for me to die,” one of my mentors Mary always told me. Mary didn’t live long enough to see water return to the Lower Owens River or bird fly back to Owens Lake. I never stop thinking about mentors who taught me and didn’t live to see many of our victories.
I look for connections with people and groups in Los Angeles who might help us here in the Owens Valley. Without help from Angelenos everything is much harder. Change must occur in LA. They must see us before they can help us. Most of the time we are invisible. Their city owns 240,000 acres and a river here. There is conscience there I firmly believe. My job is to continue to seek it and engage it.