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Imperial Times 

Why one Owens Valley is enough for all of us

Wednesday, Aug 14 2002
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Has our freshly Chicagoized L.A. Times really forgotten which new century we‘re in? In June and July, columnists James Ricci and Steve Lopez cascaded blame for all California’s problems upon the immigrant population. Suddenly, we found ourselves back in the foreigner-bashing, night-riding days of the early 1900s.

Then last Thursday, our Times sought to raise the ghost of William Mulholland in the grand old cause of Southland Water Imperialism. His circa-1900 dogma held that, to slake Los Angeles‘ limitless thirst, no environmental disaster is too great to inflict somewhere else.

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This was the rationale under which Los Angeles turned the bountiful Owens Valley into a high-desert dust bowl nearly a century ago. Now you can argue (as I myself have) that what’s done is done and can‘t be undone: Abundant water for 3 million people, plus a great movie like Chinatown, were nearly worth the trade-off. But what the Times seems to favor now is creating yet another rural dust bowl to ensure the region’s future water supplies -- this time replacing the state‘s largest body of water: the Salton Sea. Here we go again.

The whole problem stems from the fact that California’s being called to book for its generations of overusing Colorado River waters. The U.S. Supreme Court has decreed that the state must make alternative water-source plans by the end of this year. No ifs, ands or buts. So a deal was arranged whereby the Imperial Irrigation District (or, as the Times puts it, ”The Imperial Water District“), which gets a whopping share of Colorado water, would not irrigate some land, and pass the water savings along to San Diego and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Initially, it is said, this would cause no harm. Stretched to its maximum, however, state officials say this program could damage or destroy the Salton Sea.

But ”saving the Salton . . . should not be allowed to stop this water trade,“ the Times orated. ”To see a real environmental catastrophe, imagine urban Southern California suffering an immediate cut of more than half of its Colorado River water . . . Picture brown gardens, empty swimming pools, unflushed toilets, zero development and high-technology companies fleeing.“

Wowie. Zowie. But in all honesty, even a reduction of half the region‘s Colorado water would probably amount to around a net 25 percent cut in Southern Californias water availability, since most water agencies have some local well resources and the MWD is also supplied via the Sacramento Delta. It would mean even fewer cutbacks to Los Angeles, because L.A.’s Department of Water and Power has that Owens Valley aqueduct.

Besides, the millions of us who‘ve actually lived here more than a dozen years don’t have to imagine such a ”catastrophe.“ We remember what could be better termed the ”inconveniences“ of the great droughts of the mid-‘70s and ’80s. Drying gardens and lawns. ”If it‘s brown, flush it down,“ swimming pools given over to skateboarding. What we don’t remember is ”zero development,“ which some hold to be quite desirable. The intervening years have brought us some of the most insane buildup the region‘s ever seen. And the transfer of water-intensive high-tech manufacturing to places like Albuquerque and Taiwan was at that time attributed to high local tax, labor and real estate costs, not water shortages. In any case, we survived this water-short Time of Terror just fine. Indeed, we all learned a great deal more about water conservation, dry landscaping and resource planning back then than our Times editorialist seems to know now.

What’s really repellent about the editorial, though, isn‘t just the woeful inaccuracies. It’s the reactionary bid to turn back the clock to an era in which Greater Los Angeles could -- with its pre--Otis Chandler Times in the vanguard -- declare its own unlimited growth to be the state‘s most worthwhile cause. We got us the most money and the most people and the most legislators, and if we need to destroy some backwoods county to help us go on bloating, to hell with the rustics.

In 1980, this balderdash hit the reality wall with the defeat of the Peripheral Canal ballot proposal. The canal was the MWD’s Great Widget, the solution for all California water problems. All we had to do was pipe water from the underpopulated, rain-rich North to the populous but parched South. But the measure‘s statewide downfall at the polls birthed a new mandate -- Southern California no longer ruled the state’s water supply; instead, it would have to learn to conserve, to make do with what it had. No longer could it pillage other regions for water. Over the past decade, Los Angeles itself has, under court order, had to mitigate its own most notorious environmental depredations: the water diversions from Mono and Owens lakes.

In any case, the Imperial Irrigation District last week finally agreed to a five-year trial start-up of the 50-year Imperial Valley diversion proposal. (I‘m indebted for these and other details to the good reporting of Dale Kasler of the Sacramento Bee.) But surrendering water by order of the Supreme Court is one thing. Continuing the process for another 45 years under the pressure of exurban sprawl and widespread water waste could be another. It could lead to the biggest voter revolt against Southland water piracy since ’82. And it should, because other means are at hand to save and supply water, such as better conservation, waste-water recycling and improved ground-water recharge.

The Imperial Valley‘s people tend to be poor, and their wages and political clout are low. Farming is its only major industry. Taking the region’s irrigation water and making much of the land lie fallow could mean not only the end of the state‘s largest lake but also the end of regional farming in southeast California, the end of an extensive community, the end of an era. We don’t need water that badly. There are better, more responsible ways to get it. And most of all, we don‘t need another Owens Valley on our collective conscience. One of those is more than enough.

Want vs. Needs

Last week, I reported on the unwonted reserve with which the county Board of Supervisors presented its $196 million matching-fund bond issues for the proposed $420 million reconstructions of both of the big county museums. You could read the proposals through several times and still get the idea that all we were talking about was new fire escapes. Not Rem Koolhaas.

It doesn’t seem to be the best use of money. Particularly since LACMA‘s last costly rehab dates only to 1986. Many objected even last year to the new LACMA proposal’s $300 million ultimate cost. But since the new Koolhaas plan was proclaimed, a lot of bad things have happened to county finances in general and those of county health services in particular. The Department of Health Services‘ current nine-figure shortfall has become a state and even a national concern. Both Gray Davis and the folks in Washington say they are upset at county plans to close hospitals and clinics -- although so far, no one’s offered money to prevent this from happening.

Whether a state or federal agency does offer to help will depend, in large part, on how our county responds to its own most pressing. I‘m only guessing. But I think that picking up the paper, as I did last week, and seeing, on the same page, stories about the pending implosion of county health services and the county supervisors’ eager quest for several hundred millions‘ worth of fresh bonded indebtedness for new museums might not suggest the requisite responsiveness.

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