Mammoth Lakes is a stunning ski resort town high in the pristine Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, which offers backwoods cross-country trails, thrilling downhill runs, hot springs and tiny glaciers in shadowed ravines. Most of its 8,230 residents are working-class folk; they staff the cafés and hotels crammed with skiers and outdoorsmen, often from Los Angeles, who come up for the weekend or own second homes there.
The town, five hours north of L.A., is on a horrible run of bad luck. When the housing bubble burst, property values plunged, leaving more than 40 percent of homes with underwater mortgages. Then city leaders lost a $43 million breach-of-contract suit brought by a developer — three times the size of the town's annual budget — forcing the town to file for bankruptcy. Then, last winter saw the lowest snowfall in 20 years. The ski sector, the largest employer, laid off 70 people.
Now, to top it off, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has come to collect.
"It's kind of the additional straw on the camel's back," says Tom Cage, a business owner and board member of the Mammoth Community Water District. "It just adds to the angst. People are saying, 'Man, oh man, what's next?' "
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Designed by Irish immigrant William Mulholland, built by men and mules, the aqueduct was a true engineering marvel, carrying water more than 200 miles along a brilliant route that relies entirely on gravity. Without the aqueduct, Los Angeles — built not in a desert, as is often said, but upon an arid, seasonal floodplain — never would have grown into a major metropolis.
L.A. boosters knew its water had to be taken from somewhere. In 1913 they took it from the Owens Valley, in just 13 years turning that green haven into a wretched place and Owens Lake into a dust bowl.
But long before the water flowed south, corruption charges hung over L.A., typified by writer W.T. Spilman's 1912 claim that politicos had secretly drained the city's reservoirs, creating a fake 1904 water crisis that persuaded voters to approve a bond for the aqueduct. Journalist Carey McWilliams later called the results "the rape of the Owens Valley," perhaps inspiring screenwriter Robert Towne to add an incest subplot when he dramatized the events in the movie Chinatown.
Mammoth had long used Mammoth Creek, an Owens River tributary, for water, and had officially been granted permits by the State Water Control Board in 1949 to take water. But DWP says that its rights to Mammoth Creek are more than 100 years old, superseding the state's decision.
"That water's coming out of L.A.'s hide," says Marty Adams, DWP's director of water operations. "We have to preserve our rights."
Mammoth Lakes residents are bewildered. "If they felt that they had such a legal right to it, why haven't they said anything over the last 60 years?" Cage asks. "Why have they let a community build up with expectations of water use?"
Adams insists that DWP has more than once over the years asserted its rights in writing. So, he says, when Mammoth filed an environmental impact report and an Urban Water Management Plan to cement its rights to use Mammoth Creek's water for its own planned growth, L.A. was forced to bring its legal powers to bear upon the town. Adams calls Mammoth's EIR filing "a final piece of the puzzle for their licenses to water. They took an official step. ... Our official step is a response to them."
So Los Angeles sued Mammoth Lakes. Adams says DWP is willing to negotiate.
"A number of ideas are on the table," Adams says. "We can find a way for Mammoth to pay [DWP for Mammoth Creek's water] on an ongoing basis."
"That was a pretty magnanimous offer on their part," Greg Norby, general manager of the Mammoth Water District, says sarcastically.
"It would cost the community north of $2 million. We just couldn't entertain that concept," Norby says.
Given the small number of ratepayers in Mammoth — about 3,600 — a "settlement" could drastically raise the locals' water bills. But if the suit by behemoth Los Angeles drags on, so could the town's legal fees.
Yet at stake is an astonishingly small amount of water — at least for L.A.
The State Water Resources Control Board gives Mammoth the rights to 2,600 acre-feet of creek water per year, as long as the creek stays above a certain level, which it rarely does. Typically, Mammoth uses only about 1,500 acre-feet of creek water, or about 489 million gallons in one year.
To put this in perspective, Los Angeles' 3.9 million DWP customers use 1,500 acre-feet of water — from all sources — in about a day.
Mammoth Water Board's Tom Cage argues that the town doesn't technically even take 1,500 acre-feet, since much of it is returned to the watershed as treated sewage and watering runoff. He says that, over the years, the water seeps down to the Owens Valley — and some of it, once used by Mammoth, eventually is gathered up and sold to L.A. customers by DWP.
Cage estimates that Mammoth actually takes around 600 acre-feet of creek water per year— about enough to fill 296 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
But whether Mammoth residents use 1,500 acre-feet or 600 is nearly irrelevant when set against L.A.'s massive thirst.
Even with conservation efforts, L.A. residents and businesses use 470,302 acre-feet annually, from all water sources, according to DWP's website — enough to fill 232,043 Olympic-sized pools, not a mere 296.
Mammoth's creek-water allotment, now sought by DWP, is roughly analogous to emptying one bottled water into Los Feliz Boulevard's Mulholland Fountain.
"No offense to the attorneys, but it seems silly to spend the next 10 years and millions of dollars for 600 acre-feet of water a year," Cage says. "Can anybody find any reasonableness to this?"
The city's actions may be partially motivated by a search for cheap water. L.A. gets water from the Owens River, Los Angeles–area ground wells and the Metropolitan Water District, which obtains its water from the California Delta and the Colorado River. That water, too, is limited — not to mention expensive. Every gallon L.A. doesn't get from the Owens or its own groundwater is purchased at a premium.
Adding to those normal costs, Adams says that nearly two months of each Los Angeles ratepayer's DWP bill annually funds the Owens Valley mitigation project — replenishing that valley's water.
The dispute with Mammoth Lakes over its decades-long use of its local creek, plus the filing of a lawsuit by DWP over an order that L.A. must expand the Owens Lake mitigation project, suggests a new water war is developing between DWP and the north. Complicating things even further, less snow is falling on the Eastern Sierras, and half as much water is coming down the L.A. aqueduct compared with 50 years ago.
Marty Adams says DWP doesn't have a choice, because it's mandated by the L.A. City Charter to go after every drop. "We would be violating the charter if we were letting someone take their water for nothing," he says.
One respected lawmaker finds DWP's position ill-advised, if not appalling.
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State Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles wrote to DWP general manager Ron Nichols: "Rather than act in a hostile manner toward Mammoth Lakes, we should seek to partner with this popular, picturesque and tight-knit mountain community to develop mutually beneficial solutions. Instead, with these lawsuits, you are opening old wounds in the Owens River Valley and risk exacerbating the historic distrust of the City of Los Angeles and L.A. DWP well beyond the Eastern Sierra."
DWP has other political problems with its stance. The agency loses tens of thousands of acre-feet of water each year to preventable leaks and bursting water mains. (The Los Angeles Daily News four years ago estimated 31,680 acre-feet leaks annually.) But both the L.A. City Council and DWP, under numerous administrations, have neglected the basic infrastructure and left large areas with 100-year-old pipes.
Ironically, under court penance for the city's devastation of the Owens Valley, DWP today is required to pump 95,000 acre-feet of water, paid for by L.A. residents, into the former Owens Lake each year.
That water equals about 158 Mammoth Creeks.