By Myrna Trauntvein
Juab County Commissioners went to Bishop, California, last Thursday and Friday and learned what they do not want to happen to the farmers and ranchers in the county's West Desert.
"We toured Owens Valley," said Chad Winn, commission chairman. "The problem there started in 1913."
All three commissioners went to the area as part of the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority (CNRWA) that collaboratively and proactively addresses water resource issues.
"We are members of that organization," said Winn.
"The reason that we thought it was important to see the Owens Valley," said Byron Woodland, commissioner, "was that we have concerns about Snake Valley."
After years of private negotiation and consideration, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's decision to scuttle an agreement with Nevada over water rights in the border region of Snake Valley casts serious doubt on the future of the massive Las Vegas water pipeline project and leaves the Silver State with few good options.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority had sought a deal that would have let it pump as much as 21 billion gallons of water from the Snake Valley aquifer, running through a pipeline to a growing Las Vegas, 285 miles to the south.
"We are happy that the governor did not sign the agreement," said Woodland.
He said that Owens Valley did not have any hard triggers or agreements and that allowed LA to take all the water they wanted from the valley.
The same thing could have happened in Snake Valley without an agreement with hard triggers that would shut the pipeline down if a certain level of water was not maintained in Snake Valley.
The focus of the Owens Valley tour was the monitoring, management and mitigation programs associated with the City of Los Angeles Aqueduct Project in Owens Valley.
November 5, 2013 was the 100th anniversary of the completion of the LA Aqueduct Project.
The tour attendees visited LA Aqueduct Project facilities, monitoring sites and mitigation program sites in Owens Valley.
"LA went up to Owens Valley in the 1900s and purchased a 60-mile long strip that was 20 to 30 miles wide," said Winn. "They took the water out of the Owens River."
Each year, from 1913 until the lawsuit, which was brought against them in 1970, LA took 400,000 acre-feet of water out of the area.
"They dried up the whole valley," said Winn. "They dried up Owens Lake."
It took 20 years to settle the lawsuit and in 1990 a settlement was reached.
Now LA has begun the process of reclaiming the valley. They are now taking 200,000 acre-feet of water per year, which is half of what they had been taking.
The lake, said Winn, is one-fourth the size it once was and the LA project is planting vegetation and spreading gravel over the lake bed that doesn't have water covering it.
"They had terrible dust storms because the lake was a salt lake that was dried up when all the water was taken from it," he said.
Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and Inyo County Water Department staffers talked proudly of the reclamation, said Winn.
"The area will never really recover," said Winn. "The farmers and ranchers used to have beautiful groves."
Now LA is renting out some of those ranches and farms.
"The photos they showed of the dust storms there were amazing," said Winn. "They were like the dust storms you see in movies. At one time, Owens Valley had the worst air quality in the U.S."
Fred Eaton, mayor of Los Angeles, realized that water could flow from Owens Valley to Los Angeles via an aqueduct. The aqueduct construction was overseen by William Mulholland and was finished in 1913.
By the 1920s, so much water was diverted from the Owens Valley that agriculture became difficult. By 1926, Owens Lake at the bottom of Owens Valley was completely dry due to water diversion.
The water needs of Los Angeles kept growing. In 1941, Los Angeles diverted water that previously fed Mono Lake into the aqueduct.
Mono Lake, north of Owens Valley, is an important ecosystem for migrating birds. The lake level dropped after the water was diverted, which threatened the migrating birds.
Environmentalists, led by David Gaines and the Mono Lake Committee engaged in a series of litigation with Los Angeles between 1979 and 1994.
The litigation forced Los Angeles to stop diverting water from around Mono Lake, which has started to rise back to a level that can support its ecosystem.
"The LA representatives really painted a rosy picture," said Woodland. "Even with the mitigation, the valley is not what it was. It is a long-term process and the valley will probably never be what it was."
He said that it was important that the state of Utah learned the lessons of Owens Valley so that it did not happen in Snake Valley.