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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California Water Wars Renewed in Sierras

The 100-year war over water rights has been rejoined in California's Sierra Mountains with the powerful and often-despised water agency of Los Angeles going to battle against a small community over a trout bypass.

The question of who owns the rights to California's truest source of wealth and power has generated regional disputes for more than a century, collectively known as the California Water Wars. The conflict between the dry megalopolis of Los Angeles and the water-rich communities in the Sierra mountains has inspired historical books, novels, and films like Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

It is the very same fundamental dispute that drives the most recent court fight.

The Mammoth water agency wants to change the spot on Mammoth Creek where the water flow for a fishery bypass is measured. A highly-contested Mono County Superior Court ruling in 1997 set flow rate minimums for creeks and sets up a procedure for any changes.

Greg Norby, who heads the Mammoth water district, wants to change the spot on Mammoth Creek where the flow rate is measured. He says the change would make it easier to monitor the fishery and keep the creek at or above its minimum flow rate.

"Right now the point of measurement is the old 395 gauge, which is a couple of miles outside our service area," said Norby. "For 10 years scientists came in and made detailed surveys of the habitat and the creek flows. They found that most of the trout are in the upper two-thirds of the creek, near Old Mammoth Road."

"We requested the point of measurement be moved to that gauge because it would be more effective," he said.

L.A.'s Department of Water and Power begs to differ.

"The Mammoth Creek flow is approximately 25% of the City's water export from the Eastern Sierra," says the agency in a complaint filed in Mono County Superior Court. The proposed change would might affect the environment and other water users downstream -- namely, the citizens of Los Angeles -- and will exacerbate water shortages during dry years.

Norby accuses the enormous L.A. agency of deafness and bad science.

"It's fundamentally false and without merit," he said. "Less than 1 percent of their water is exported from here. We've told them the amount is immeasurable, but they won't listen."

A host of environmental agencies signed off on the proposal to change the measuring point for bypass flow, a point emphasized by the local water district's director.

"These are the experts, the people who really serve the public interest," he said. "Their endorsement stands in clear rebuttal to the statements made by the LADWP, which are indicative of the quality of the facts they're working with," he added. "They have no grasp on the basics."

Norby believes that Los Angeles is simply continuing its 100-year-old campaign of expansion and take over. "They are trying to take away rights that Mammoth Community has exercised for half a century," he said.

Lawyers for the L.A. agency say the locals don't have rights to the water flowing in the creek.

"The Project is fundamentally flawed because it is based on water rights that District does not have," says their complaint. It claims that L.A. is the only lawful holder of riparian rights on Mammoth Creek because Mammoth Creek is a tributary to Owens River. Having riparian rights basically means that landowners have rights to any body of water that touches their land.

The reason the LADWP insists that it holds such rights on a creek 200 miles away links this new court fight to a legendary water dispute in the West. William Mulholland, chief engineer of the LADWP at the turn of the twentieth century, bought -- and some say tricked -- the farmers along the bucolic Owens River Valley into selling their water rights. L.A. bought the riparian rights so it could build an aqueduct taking the water through 12-foot pipes for 220 miles to Los Angeles.

The harsh tactics used by the city to gain water rights served as the dramatic backdrop to Polanski's Chinatown.

Then as now, the LADWP argues it is protecting the city from another water crisis.

"LADWP and its residents will continue to suffer adverse and irreparable environmental harm from the Project," said the agency in its complaint. It has asked that the court stay any change to the location of the flow rate.

The people that stand to suffer, says Norby, are the local farmers and residents.

"Putting our water supply in a state of uncertainty would just add to the stack of problems facing the community," he said. "We are facing enough challenges without this."

Calls to the L.A. water agency were met with silence or revealed a lack of knowledge of journalistic practice. Jana Sidley, the Deputy City Attorney on the case, directed calls Chris Plakos, who said he could not comment on the case because the matter was in litigation.

"A reporter for a courthouse news service should have known that," Plakos added despite the fact that lawyers are regularly televised commenting on ongoing litigation from the courthouse steps, and that Courthouse News regularly includes quotes from lawyers about ongoing litigation.

Norby suggested that obduracy and inpenetrability are the agency's stock in trade.

"It took six months of effort just for us to get a meeting with them," he said. "It will likely take many more years of litigation and cost the rate payers millions in legal and consulting fees before anything gets done," he added. "They're impenetrable."

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