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Los Angeles Officials Propose Rate Increase for Heaviest Water Users

Los Angeles Officials Propose Rate Increase for Heaviest Water Users


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The rate changes would ideally go into effect by early 2016.

In an effort to promote water conservation during California’s drought, the city of Los Angeles has proposed a rate increase for the use of water and power, putting the most responsibility on the biggest residential water users.

Customers who use approximately 20,000 gallons of water per month — an estimated 10 percent of customers — would see an increase in their water and power bills of 34 percent by 2021.

According to LA’s Department of Water and Power, those users would see a monthly increase of $17.64 ($10.33 for water and $7.31 for power) for the next five years.

Aside from the critical task of conserving water, the department said that it also needs to increase water revenue by $230 million over the next five years in order to repair old infrastructure and comply with federal quality regulations.

Power revenue, which needs to increase to $4.4. billion over the next five years, will be used to comply with regulations on greenhouse gas reduction and the development of renewable energy resources.

If approved, the proposal would go into effect by early 2016. Meanwhile, earlier this week, the actor Tom Selleck was accused by officials of illegally siphoning water from a public hydrant, for use on his ranch property.


DWP lagging behind on replacing old power poles 87,000 have exceeded their lifespan

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has slipped far behind its schedule to replace aging power poles and other electrical infrastructure, raising questions about the dangers of wildfires, power outages and other consequences from failed equipment.

While lagging on results, it also spends about three times the amount other utilities pay to replace old power poles, according to interviews and records reviewed by the Daily News.

Why the DWP can’t muster the manpower, and why it spends so much amid the frustration, tells a larger story of fundamental problems in the city-owned utility.

One key problem appears to be union rules that inhibit contracting out. Combined with a rapidly retiring workforce and shifting funds, the critical upgrades have been left behind.

“This is an organization that’s trying really hard to change,” said Camden Collins, a deputy with the ratepayer advocate division created in 2012 to serve as a DWP watchdog. 𠇋ut it’s pinned down in so many directions.”

The utility has about 320,000 poles in its service territory. About half of them are 50 years or older, and about 87,000 have exceeded their 60-year lifespan.

Internal reports say the agency needs to replace them at a pace of 5,000 poles per year to keep up. But a program launched in 2007 after major power outages has failed to produce results. In its peak year, the department replaced about half that annual rate. Last year the agency replaced fewer than 1,200 poles.

Aging poles and downed power lines have been blamed for a number of devastating wildfires in recent years. And that can mean millions — or even billions — of dollars in penalties and legal costs for utilities at fault.

State regulators and courts blamed downed power lines after wildfires scorched wide swaths of Malibu and San Diego County in 2007, burning more than a thousand homes.

By some estimates, San Diego Gas and Electric paid more than $2 billion to victims, and it soon launched an aggressive plan to replace wooden backcountry poles with steel ones. Southern California Edison paid regulators $37 million after overloaded and termite-damaged poles fell in a high-wind area. The utility must follow strict inspection rules.

Now DWP is facing its own legal battle. Victims of last year’s Powerhouse Fire near Santa Clarita are suing the DWP, claiming the agency neglected its equipment and that its power lines sparked the blaze, which burned 24 homes and more than 30,000 acres. While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, the DWP said in a statement it 𠇍oes not believe that equipment age was a factor.”

Still, a 2012 consultant’s report warned that the utility’s infrastructure was facing challenges. “The LADWP system is aging and increasingly prone to malfunction,” the report said.

Agency officials say poles have an average lifespan of 60 years, but spokesman Joseph Ramallo noted “there are many factors that determine the condition of the pole, including soil conditions, wind loading, physical loading, insect damage, and original wood material. Some poles in our system can be much older than 60 years and can be in perfectly good condition. The point is that the department needs to ramp up the replacement program.”

This fiscal year, DWP has replaced poles at well below its target pace. Since July 1, 2013, the utility has replaced or installed 1,300 power poles, according to officials. In total, crews have installed about 16,000 poles over nearly eight years.

At this rate, they wouldn’t finish replacing the 87,000 currently in need for another 40 years or more — and by then tens of thousands of additional poles will need replacement.

DWP is planning to ask for additional ratepayer funds to replace old electric equipment. While Mayor Eric Garcetti said rates would not increase this year, department officials want future hikes for the Power Reliability Program, which covers replacements. Projections show the plan growing from $737 million spent in fiscal 2013 to $1.2 billion in fiscal 2017 — a nearly 70 percent increase.

With the delays and difficulty tracking funds today, that projected growth makes some nervous.

“If we’re going to do a moon launch, let’s be sure we have the platform built first,” Collins said.

Born in darkness

Officials proposed the Power Reliability Plan after record summer heat in 2006 knocked out hundreds of transformers and 79,000 customers lost power. They raised rates to replace the outdated transformers, cables, crossarms and poles that make up the distribution system. It was an ambitious push to catch up before then, workers replaced deteriorated poles occasionally.

At first, crews kept pace with the program’s goals, which were to gradually ramp up to the 5,000 poles-per-year target. They also replaced more outdated transformers than expected from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2011. But then poles took a back seat, says Randy Howard, senior assistant general manager for power, because crews found other equipment needed more immediate attention.

However, a budget document from 2010 shows the utility was already having problems contracting out the pole replacements. It finished the year $6.2 million under its pole replacement budget in fiscal 2010, unable to complete work because of delays finalizing a construction contract.

As of December 2013, it was $79.7 million under budget for the reliability plan, largely because of the contracting blockage.

“When you’re taking on bigger initiatives, we need some outside help,” Howard said last week. “We’ve had some real challenges with the procurement of those resources.”

One key obstacle, officials say, is the contract with DWP’s largest union, IBEW Local 18. The agreement requires that managers negotiate with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers before hiring contractors. Initially, the department is supposed to attempt to fill any internal vacant positions, Howard said. The contract also obligates managers to offer IBEW workers overtime to fill some of the need.

IBEW business manager Brian D𠆚rcy declined to be interviewed for this story.

Amid the contracting roadblocks, electric crew members started retiring at a fast pace, and the department hasn’t keep pace with hiring.

DWP said it needed about 200 workers at the outset of the plan: electric mechanics, station operators and others to do the extra replacement work. All of them were eventually hired, despite some candidates dropping out of the multi-year training program when they realized the electrocution risks.

Because of retirements, officials say the deficit is now closer to 400 workers, according to an agency report. It could get worse, too: about 40 percent of all DWP workers are eligible to retire, officials say.

Rate roller coaster?

The DWP brought on contractors for the extra pole replacement work in 2009, but they didn’t last long because of a drop in funding, Howard said. In fiscal 2011, DWP General Manager Ron Nichols decided against a rate increase, and Howard says that reduction forced the department to eliminate the pole crew contracts.

Collins, the ratepayer advocate, challenged that assertion: “There are constraints, but recent history suggests it is not funding that is the more important one,” she said. “They don’t need more in the rates than is realistic for them to accomplish.”

After raising rates in 2012, the agency tried to bring on contractors, but they faced the same problems. Howard pointed to union negotiations — labor leaders would rather fill the 387 vacant positions first — and the extra time it takes to teach contractors about the DWP grid.

“We spent a year trying to get contractors on board to help us,” Howard said.

Instead of actually doing the work, the department spent last year prioritizing the problems, running statistical tests to determine which poles were most likely to break, he said.

Some of the problem may also be City Hall policies, Howard said, like limits on the hours crews are allowed to work.

When department officials present their budget to a City Council committee Wednesday, at least one council member may question the reliability plan.

“To me, it’s really important to know if we’re on schedule, and if not, why?” Councilman Felipe Fuentes, chair of the Energy and Environment Committee, said in an interview. “When there are delays, there are increased costs, and that’s bad for the ratepayers.”

More expensive than others

As the DWP struggles with its pole replacement plan, other utilities have made headway at a much less expensive rate. Pacific Gas and Electric, the private utility serving Central and Northern California, replaced about 14,250 poles in 2013, according to a spokesman. PG&E spends about $11,000 per pole, including labor and indirect costs such as administrative and pension benefits.

The public Sacramento Municipal Utility District spends about $15,000 for hard-to-reach replacement poles, according to agency spokespeople.

The cost for DWP? About $42,000 per pole, according to a breakdown of costs in fiscal 2013. The figure far exceeds what DWP had estimated each pole should cost — about $24,000.

DWP officials say their highly urban service area is more expensive to maintain. Howard says it’s about economies of scale once the replacement plan ramps up it will save on labor and materials: “We think we can bring the cost down substantially,” he said.

But Collins says high administrative and overhead costs may be an important factor.

“There’s all this other clutter and congestion and stuff that’s bogging down our targeted objective,” she said. “We just have an organization that’s really heavy and cumbersome.”

The bigger question — how much the department has spent on replacing old equipment — is difficult to answer, Collins says. Sometimes the agency’s financial records lump together new equipment — costs to add a pole for a new business, for example — so breaking out the expense is challenging. That points to another underlying problem the agency is trying to fix: old computer systems don’t track costs well, Collins said. Later this year, the agency plans to start updating its decades-old finance software.

As the summer heat approaches, DWP officials hope the transformers and other equipment can handle the added energy load. Since the reliability plan was launched, the average number of outages and the average length of outages have varied widely each year. So far this fiscal year, they are beating their targets, and are well below the 2007 levels. The DWP reports it has fewer outages, on a per-capita basis, than some other major California utilities.

Wildfires, Howard says, aren’t as big of risk here as in some other utilities’ service areas, because Los Angeles has less open space. But high winds, such as the conditions that started the Powerhouse Fire, are always a threat for outages and can wreak havoc.

“When you have extreme winds and old poles,” Howard said, “that’s where you have the weaknesses.”


SoCal’s water district just OK’d nearly $11 billion for a piece of the WaterFix tunnel project

LOS ANGELES – The governing board of Southern California’s largest water wholesaler voted Tuesday to spend billions more dollars on a water-delivery tunnel project, despite objections by Los Angeles’ representatives on the board and concerns it will sharply raise residents’ water rates.

The California WaterFix project is designed to divert water from the Sacramento River as it enters the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and carry it to existing federal and state pumping stations in the southern part of the delta through one or two 35-mile tunnels.

MWD Board votes to support and fund #CAWaterFix two tunnel option to modernize the state water system and help improve supply reliability for #SoCal. pic.twitter.com/yCP4DbnNZw

&mdash MWD of SoCal (@mwdh2o) April 10, 2018

In the face of statewide funding shortfalls for the $17 billion, two- tunnel project, the state Department of Water Resources announced in February that the agency planned to pursue a staged construction approach, building only one tunnel initially at a cost of about $11 billion.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board voted last year to contribute $4.3 billion toward the WaterFix project. But the board voted Tuesday to increase its investment to $10.8 billion, providing the remaining funding needed to build the full two-tunnel project.

“For decades, we have sought a solution to the problems of the Bay Delta, problems that put Southern California’s water supply at risk,” MWD board Chairman Randy Record said. “We finally have that solution, California WaterFix. We simply could not jeopardize the opportunity to move this long-sought and much-needed project forward.”

MWD officials said the agency’s increased investment in the project is expected to cost the average Southern California household up to $4.80 per month in increased water bills. Critics of the project have estimated a much higher impact, suggesting monthly bills for Los Angeles residents could jump by as much as $16 per month.

MWD Board Chair Randy Record after #CAWaterFix vote: We need to move forward, we can’t wait anymore. pic.twitter.com/po3KIfKR8p

&mdash MWD of SoCal (@mwdh2o) April 10, 2018

Gov. Jerry Brown hailed the MWD board’s decision. He has long supported the project, saying it will help environment by protecting fish and also securing a more reliable delivery system for the water.

“This is a historic decision that is good for California — our people, our farms and our natural environment,” Brown said.

Although the MWD staff initially supported the scaled-down, single-tunnel version of the WaterFix project, the agency last week began reconsidering the idea of funding the entire unfunded portion of the full two-tunnel version.

Five members of the MWD board appointed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pushed for a delay in Tuesday’s vote. But the board voted 27-10 to fund the two-tunnel project, with all five Los Angeles representatives among the opposition.

Members representing some other areas of the MWD — which includes water agencies in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties — argued that their regions do not have as much potential access to local water supplies as Los Angeles does, and are in greater need of a consistent supply from the MWD.

The Los Angeles City Council last month voted to oppose the WaterFix project if the MWD paid more than 47 percent of the $11 billion, one-tunnel version of the project or 26 percent of the two-tunnel, $17 billion project.

With Tuesday’s vote, the MWD is committed to funding about 64 percent of the two-tunnel project.

The City Council has no direct control over the MWD board and can only advise how it votes.

Soon after the state proposed the single-tunnel plan, MWD staff outlined a proposal to pick up the unfunded portion of the two-tunnel project.

Under its funding plan, the MWD would recover the extra investment by selling tunnel capacity to agricultural irrigation districts when WaterFix is built.

After initially floating the idea of funding both tunnels, MWD staff later notified the board it wanted to retract the idea because it was having trouble securing commitments from the irrigation districts. But the MWD staff announced last week it planned to present both the one-tunnel and two-tunnel options to the board at the urging of some board members.

MWD board Vice Chair John Murray Jr., who represents Los Angeles, said he opposed the two-tunnel project because there was “no assurance that in fact the Central Valley agencies are going to contribute, as had been anticipated. And frankly I think that, as do some others, that this may be an abrogation of our fiduciary duty to commit to that level of funding by a public agency without the assurance of how, in fact, we will recover the funds that this board apparently is prepared to commit.

The MWD is a wholesale water supplier which, along with the Los Angeles Aqueduct, accounts for roughly 85 percent of the city’s water supplies, with the total amount depending on the year’s environmental conditions.

The MWD is funded through property taxes and the price it charges for its water, so a decision by its board to help pay for the tunnels is likely to affect Los Angeles Department of Water and Power ratepayers and property owners. MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger has said funding the tunnels would not result in higher taxes because the project would be funded through the agency’s regular rate structure. He said Tuesday the two-tunnel project would increase a member household’s water bill by 1 to 2 percent.


California Pushes Water-Tunnel Plan

California Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday endorsed a $14 billion plan to sharply increase water supplies to parched Southern California, in a move that would remake the water map in the semi-arid state.

The plan, which Mr. Brown backed alongside U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, involves two massive tunnels to divert water from wet Northern California to the south. It was immediately assailed by a broad range of interest groups, which denounced it as too expensive and potentially detrimental to the environment and to the regional economies that would be affected.

"It's a costly adventure that isn't necessary, and the state cannot afford it," said Jim Nielsen, a Republican state assemblyman whose district includes the upper Sacramento River, which empties into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Water has long been a contentious issue in California, partly because people in the northern part of the state, where most of the rain and snow falls, are wary of how much of it they send to the dry south, where most Californians live. The delta can't always transport enough water to satisfy farmers and cities in Southern California, and state officials have spent the past three decades debating plans to fix the system.

The delta's earthen levees, which control floods and move water, can fail from earthquakes and other causes. Environmental groups say the delta's pumps kill endangered smelt and salmon, and their lawsuits have prompted courts to cut irrigation, turning fields fallow and putting laborers out of work. The proposed tunnels would bypass the delta, which now serves as a chokepoint for water shipments in the state—and depends for its health on a steady influx of fresh water. The plan was conceived by a group of state and federal agencies, environmental organizations and others convened by the state after 2009 legislation to repair and improve California's aging water infrastructure.


How Has the Drought Affected California’s Water Use?

An interactive map shows how much water California residents conserved in April and how much daily consumption they are being forced to cut under new mandatory restrictions.

That was the lowest conservation number since the state began gathering these figures in July 2014. The 2.8 percent reduction is in comparison to February 2013, the year the state is using as a baseline.

“These are sobering statistics — disheartening statistics, considering how hard we have been working on this,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, which reported the findings. “We are very concern about these numbers. They highlight the need for further action.”

There were other developments Tuesday that also signaled the increasing urgency of the drought problem. The wholesale water agency in Southern California that provides water to 19 million people — roughly half the population of the state — said Tuesday that it was moving to cut its supplies by 10 to 20 percent, pending a vote by the agency’s board of directors next week. The agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, also said it would triple the cost of water for anyone who exceeded those limits, signaling what state officials said would be an aggressive use of conservation pricing to get people to curtail heavy water use.

Officials with the state water board had warned last week that communities could face cuts of as much as 35 percent as it sought to implement Mr. Brown’s plan. This was the first time that they actually listed which communities would be affected.

Under the board’s proposal, water suppliers would be divided into four tiers and would face cuts of 10 percent to 35 percent, depending on how much they had reduced their per capita water use last September, which is typically one of the hottest months in California. The board will be permitted to issue cease-and-desist orders to suppliers that fail to meet the guidelines, and they could also face fines of up to $10,000 a day.

Image

The board signaled that it was also about to further restrict water supplies to the agriculture industry, which consumes 80 percent of the water used in the state.

The February conservation figures illustrated the extent to which Mr. Brown’s effort to impose a voluntary 20 percent reduction in water use — which he announced in January 2014 — had fallen short. This January, water use by large urban water agencies declined by about 8 percent — disappointing state officials, coming as it did after a promising December, when the conservation number had been over 20 percent. Ms. Marcus said her office had alerted Mr. Brown’s office about the poor February numbers before he issued his mandatory restrictions on April 1.

The low reduction rate from February 2013 to February 2015 can largely be tied to a surge of water use in parts of Southern California. State officials, in explaining why parts of the state were actually using more water compared with 2013, said it reflected an upsurge in development and tourism, as well the fact that water use had already been relatively low in that particular month.

“But that’s not a great excuse,” Ms. Marcus said. “In a drought, it’s drier and hotter. There’s a messaging failure out there somewhere. It shows that people know there is a drought, but they just are not doing enough.”

Max Gomberg, a senior staff scientist with the State Water Resources Control Board, said the numbers were worse than anyone had expected the agency went back to local water authorities in the region to ask for an explanation.

This latest finding came as rain swept through San Francisco early Tuesday, the first major shower in the region since the governor ordered the mandatory water-use reductions last week. But while the rain should wash streets and soak plants, it will do little to ease the drought.

Bruce Terry, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, called the rainfall totals in northern and central California modest, but said the precipitation was the most that many communities had received in a while. “It is certainly not anything that’s going to remotely alleviate the drought conditions,” Mr. Terry said Tuesday.

More significant, while the rain is welcome, it risks lulling Californians into complacency just as officials are trying to impart the severity of the drought and the difficult steps that are needed to conserve water. The result was the discordant image of rainbows appearing in some parts of California as state officials were issuing dire warnings in other parts.

In Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District said it would vote next week on cutting water supplies to the 26 agencies it serves in response to drops in its reservoirs and underground reserves.

“We had substantial reserves — they are no longer nearly as substantial,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the district’s general manager. “This is why we want to push our conservation measures now. We think with prudent measures and rationing, we can go for another two or three years. After that, we are going to hit a wall.”

In San Francisco, a member of the city’s Board of Supervisors, Scott Wiener, introduced a proposal that would require some new buildings to recycle so-called gray-water from bathtubs, washing machines and other sources to use for toilets and watering plants.

“We should not be using drinking water for landscaping and to flush toilets,” Mr. Wiener said. “We have proven ways of reusing water, whether it’s storm water or water from a bathroom sink. That water can be treated and reused. We need to be moving aggressively in that direction.”

One San Francisco developer, Patrick Kennedy, said the proposal was a “laudable goal” but expressed concern about the cost of installing water reuse systems, given the city’s housing shortage and complaints about the lack of affordable housing. His company looked at adding such a system to a residential building, and its estimate of the cost was $7,000 to $10,000 per unit, he said.

On the state level, the water board said it would issue regulations to ban the use of potable water on median grass strips on roadways and restrict the kind of irrigation systems that can be used in new developments.

“Communities should restrict outdoor irrigation to the bare minimum,” said Ms. Marcus, the head of the board. “If we dramatically stop watering out-of-doors, we should be able to reduce water use by 25 percent or more in the next several months, since an average of 50 percent of urban water use is used outdoors.”

In Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District said it would provide rebates for homeowners who replace grass with less thirsty shrubbery, or buy dishwashers and washing machines that use less water.

“People want to conserve, and we have to get that message to them on what we need to do,” Mr. Kightlinger said.


Infrastructure Cracks as Los Angeles Defers Repairs

LOS ANGELES — The scene was apocalyptic: a torrent of water from a ruptured pipe valve bursting through Sunset Boulevard, hurling chunks of asphalt 40 feet into the air as it closed down the celebrated thoroughfare and inundated the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. By the time emergency crews patched the pipe, 20 million gallons of water had cascaded across the college grounds.

The failure of this 90-year-old water main, which happened in July in the midst of a historic drought, no less, was hardly an isolated episode for Los Angeles. Instead, it was the latest sign of what officials here described as a continuing breakdown of the public works skeleton of the second-largest city in the nation: its roads, sidewalks and water system.

With each day, it seems, another accident illustrates the cost of deferred maintenance on public works, while offering a frustrating reminder to this cash-strained municipality of the daunting task it faces in dealing with the estimated $8.1 billion it would take to do the necessary repairs. The city’s total annual budget is about $8.1 billion.

Los Angeles’s problems reflect the challenges many American cities face after years of recession-era belt-tightening prompted them to delay basic maintenance. But the sheer size of Los Angeles, its reliance on the automobile and, perhaps most important, the stringent voter-imposed restrictions on the government’s ability to raise taxes have turned the region into a symbol of the nation’s infrastructure woes.

“It’s part of a pattern of failing to provide for the future,” said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at U.C.L.A. “Our roads used to be better than the East Coast now they are worse. I grew up here. Things are dramatically different now than they used to be.”

There are constant reminders of the day-to-day burdens that the dilapidating infrastructure poses here.

The city is battling a class-action lawsuit from advocates for disabled people because of broken sidewalks that are almost impossible to navigate in a wheelchair, and challenging for all pedestrians trying simply to make it home. The average car owner here spends $832 a year for repairs related to the bad roads, the highest in the nation, according to a study by TRIP, a nonprofit transportation research group based in Washington. Families here routinely spring for expensive strollers to handle treacherous sidewalks.

City officials estimate that it would cost at least $3.6 billion to fix the worst roads, $1.5 billion to repair the sidewalks and $3 billion to replace aging water pipes.

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“From a ratepayer’s point of view, it can appear overwhelming,” said H. David Nahai, an environmental lawyer and the former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “We need increases for the streets and the sidewalks. We need increases for the water structure. Pretty much right now we are in a time of transition. That can be frightening.”

The problem is exacerbated by cutbacks in federal spending on public works. “The sense is that more and more, we are going to be doing things alone,” said the mayor, Eric Garcetti.

Close to 40 percent of the region’s 6,500 miles of roads and highways are graded D or F, meaning they are in such bad shape that for now city officials are concentrating maintenance efforts on roads that are in better shape, and thus less costly to fix. More than 4,000 of the 10,750 miles of sidewalks are in severe disrepair, according to Los Angeles city officials.

More than 10 percent of the 7,200 miles of water pipes were built 90 years ago. The average age of a city pipe is 58, compared with an optimal life span of 100 years. While that may not sound so bad, at the current level of funding it would take the Department of Water and Power 315 years to replace them.

Marcie L. Edwards, the general manager of the department, said that the pipes were not in as dire shape as those in some other cities, and that the department had spent more on replacing pipes. Even with more money, she said, there are limits on how fast her department can move.

“Our system is by no means falling apart,” Ms. Edwards said. “We live in a very densely populated environment. These are big jobs that are incredibly impactful on neighborhoods and congested streets.”

Still, the water main break was unsettling because, unlike the war-zone-like patches of streets and sidewalks that have been cast asunder by tree roots in some neighborhoods here, this was a hidden problem until it was revealed in a geyser to motorists waiting at a traffic light. As such, it has become a symbol of the larger problem.

“People don’t think about the fact that there are pipes under the ground that are 100 years old until one blows,” said Mike Eveloff, a leader of Fix the City, a civic group pushing for repairs. “You don’t hear a politician say, ‘I’m going to make your pipes work.’ ”

And here, as in other cities, the demand for public works comes as the costs of municipal pension plans are shooting up — a confluence that has alarmed business leaders.

“Once those payments are made, there’s not much money left, if any, to invest in infrastructure,” said Gary L. Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

The challenge also coincides with a push by city leaders to move Los Angeles away from its historic reliance on cars, with heavy investment in its expanding mass-transit system and bicycle lanes. In an interview, Mayor Garcetti said that any public works campaign would have to factor in that change.

“We have to build a city that people can be happy to walk in and drive in, but we also have to account for the transit revolution that’s coming,” he said. “If we spend billions and billions on car-only infrastructure — ignoring pedestrian, bicycle and transit users — we may look back 10 years from now and say, ‘Whoops, maybe we should have tied all those things together.’ ”

California is also known for being averse to taxes. Earlier this year, city officials debated asking voters to approve a plan to add half a cent to the 9-cent city sales tax. That would raise enough for the $3.6 billion in road reconstruction but just $640 million of the $1.5 billion needed for sidewalk repairs.

City Council leaders and Mr. Garcetti decided against putting anything before voters, probably until November 2016, to give the city more time to come up with a plan that has a chance of winning.

“I think people quite frankly are paying enough taxes right now,” said Mitchell Englander, a Republican councilman and leader of the repair effort. “We’ve got to do things differently. They don’t trust politicians.”

Kevin James, a conservative talk-show host who ran for mayor last year and was appointed by Mr. Garcetti to lead the Board of Public Works, said a sales-tax increase was needed to deal with a serious threat to the city’s well-being.

“A lot of people are going to say they feel overtaxed,” Mr. James said. “I’m not saying we’re not. But it means going to the voters, as I am prepared to do on behalf of Mayor Garcetti, to make the economic argument that $26 a year, which is what you would spend on a half-cent sales tax increase, is a lot better than $830 a year to fix your car.”

Funds to replace water pipes would come, presumably, if the Department of Water and Power gained approval from the City Council to increase water rates. Because of the drought, the typical city resident’s monthly bill for water has risen to $60, from $34.85 in the fall of 2011, reflecting the higher cost the department had to pay to purchase water.

“The longer we wait, the more expensive it’s all going to be.” said Mr. Nahai, the former head of the Department of Water and Power.


Los Angeles Officials Propose Rate Increase for Heaviest Water Users - Recipes

The mayor of Los Angeles is proposing the largest universal income pilot program in America, saying he hopes the program will "light a fire across our nation."

Newsweek reports: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has proposed giving a "universal basic income" of $1000 a month to 2,000 poor local families for one year. The program would give 2,000 families below the federal poverty line monthly $1,000 checks for 12 months. The families could then spend the money however they please.

Garcetti said he hopes the program could provide a model for similar anti-poverty initiatives in other cities. "We have to end America's addiction to poverty. " Garcetti told LAist, a local news site affiliated with Southern California Public Radio. Similar programs are also being floated in at least four other L.A. county districts, according to the Los Angeles Times.

If approved, Garcetti's program would be at least the 12th time that a U.S. region has offered a basic income to its citizens.
Bloomberg notes that Los Angeles "will be the recipient of more than $1.3 billion in federal stimulus funds from the recently passed American Rescue Plan, which could be used to fund the payouts." Garcetti, a Democrat in his second term, is co-chair of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, which has been advocating for the policy at the federal level and funding local programs. The group, which has 43 elected officials as members, was founded last year by then-Stockton-mayor Michael Tubbs. It has received $18 million in seed money from Twitter Inc. co-founder Jack Dorsey as well as $200,000 from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable arm of Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News's parent company.

California cities have been taking a lead with these programs. In San Francisco, grants and some revenue from hotel taxes will fund monthly payments of $1,000 to about 130 artists for six months beginning next month. Organizers said the pilot is the first to solely target artists. Oakland will tap private donations this summer to fund its guaranteed income program, providing $500 monthly to about 600 poor families.

Still, a majority of Americans oppose the federal government providing a guaranteed basic income, according to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center.

Ultimately the costs of such programs will be too big for cities to finance alone, he said. But with data proving it works, Garcetti said states and the federal government could be inspired to fund them.


Tiered Detroit bill plan rewards low water use

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DWSD Director Gary Brown, center, seen last year, said last week the billing model is similar to what an affordability panel suggested. (Photo: The Detroit News) Buy Photo

Detroit — Long plagued by delinquency, the city’s water department is aiming to be one of few in the nation to give customers who use the least amount of water lower rates.

A preliminary plan calls for a tiered billing system at a lower rate for the first 1,500 gallons used per month — the minimum required to meet United Nations standards for basic hygiene and safety for a family of three. Usage beyond that would be charged at a higher rate, said Marcus Hudson, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s chief financial officer.

The water department has spent the last year working on the concept recommended by an expert water affordability panel in the wake of an aggressive shutoff campaign in the city that riled human rights advocates and sparked a legal battle.

The new rate structure would apply to all of DWSD’s customers from commercial to industrial, residential and government.

“Very simply, we’re thinking about it in terms of low water users and high water users,” Hudson told The Detroit News.

The model — known as inclining block rates — could lower water rates for more than 90 percent of Detroit’s residential customers, according to DWSD’s preliminary analysis, Hudson said.

Another 5 percent could see an increase, and the remaining 5 percent could see no change. Hudson said the estimates are based on a sampling of 99,000 residential water accounts.

The block method could shift between $5 million to $7 million from residents to business and commercial accounts. And a significant portion of the shift would be from customers who are less likely to pay to those who are more likely to pay, Hudson said.

The water department anticipates an immediate $1 million to $2 million improvement in bad debt, which totals about $35 million to $40 million per year, and more favorable rates. DWSD doesn’t anticipate the move would result in revenue loss.

Hudson also expects the model would lead to increased collections from lower-income residents, reduce delinquencies and water shutoffs in Detroit.

“As the burden to lower-income residents is reduced, their probability of paying increases,” he said.

Inclining block rates are used in other cities, including Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and some cities of California.

DWSD Director Gary Brown told Detroit’s City Council last week the department developed the model similar to what was recommended last winter by the Blue Ribbon Panel on Affordability the council appointed.

Roger Colton, a Massachusetts-based economist who sat on the panel, said the inclining rates are “a progressive step to address inability to pay.”

“Inclining block rates can be a good tool,” he said. “They are not adequate unto themselves, but they are a step ahead.”

Brown said the draft is not identical to the blue ribbon group’s suggestion, but it would be a way to make water more affordable to low-income residents. Currently, about 13,000 customers are shutoff eligible, meaning they owe $150 or more in arrearages and have not yet made payment arrangements.

The department provided The News with an overview but declined to release the proposed block rates in advance of discussions with individual council members and DWSD’s water board expected this month.

Hudson said he expects analysis and recommendations will be completed by mid-March. The Board of Water Commissioners ultimately would vote on the plan. DWSD officials said Thursday the plan could be implemented by 2018.

“Right now, we are exploring the possibility with the council. We’ve got a rough model and want to orientate them to the model,” Brown said. “But the details will change, for sure.”

Block rate systems can be controversial because they raise bills for higher users. In several Los Angeles suburbs, the move attracted court challenges over claims the system gouges heavy water users.

Detroit currently has a single rate for water. Hudson said that penalizes people who don’t use significant amounts.

The average Detroit household uses about 4,800 gallons per month for a family of three. The average monthly bill is about $81, Hudson said.

Detroit Councilman Scott Benson said he’s not yet reviewed DWSD’s proposal but is supportive of the idea because it “guarantees a level of access to all of our citizens no matter the financial situation.”

“For those who are water insecure, this is huge,” said Benson, adding council is focused on ensuring all residents have access to water.

But the design, Hudson stressed, will still require “significant analysis” to ensure it would be equitable.

“At the end of the day, this isn’t about shifting costs from one group to another, it’s about what’s equitable,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s not something we would want to implement.”

Inclining blocks would apply to sewer services as well. Those economics have not yet been defined, Hudson said.

In Washington, D.C., water officials implemented a “Lifeline Rate” in October 2015 to steeply discount the first 3,000 gallons of water for its residential customers.

George Hawkins, CEO and general manager for the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, said the structure has aided lower-income users and encouraged conservation.

Hawkins said D.C. has been visible with its program and is glad it’s catching on elsewhere.

“I would say that Detroit is still on the vanguard of this,” he said. “I applaud them. It’s a great thing to do.”

But Detroit resident DeMeeko Williams, founder of the Detroit Water Brigade, a volunteer group that helps families facing water shutoffs, doubts the structure would work for Detroit and worries usage wouldn’t be accurately recorded.

“They still have problems with the billing system with the meters,” said Williams, who participated in the affordability panel. “There’s mistrust, distrust, skepticism, questioning — all sorts of analyzing by the public. No one is really going to understand this system and block rates.”

Hudson countered the number of meters with older technology is “significantly smaller” than it used to be and only represents 1 or 2 percent of the meters out there.

“We’re very confident that the amount of errors reported in meters will be fairly insignificant,” he said.


California’s Secret Government


I n Sacramento, Governor Jerry Brown is planning to close California’s $26.6 billion structural deficit through spending cuts and tax extensions. Opposition has been spirited but less contentious than expected, probably because of the size of the budget hole. But one item of Brown’s plan—something that would save about $1.7 billion annually—has generated heated debates between local officials and the new administration. The governor has proposed eliminating California’s approximately 400 redevelopment agencies (RDAs).

In theory, RDAs spearhead blight removal. In fact, they divert billions of dollars from traditional services, such as schools, parks, and firefighting use eminent domain to seize property for favored developers and run up California’s debt to pay those developers to construct projects of dubious public value, such as stadiums and big-box stores. Most Californians have long been unaware that these agencies exist. As the activist group Municipal Officials for Redevelopment Reform puts it, RDAs constitute an “unknown government” that “consumes 12 percent of all property taxes statewide,” is “supported by a powerful Sacramento lobby,” and is “backed by an army of lawyers, consultants, bond brokers and land developers.”

As of late March, the outcome of Brown’s battle against the RDAs was in question, with the state legislature lacking the votes to approve it. Too bad. It’s high time that the agencies were shut down.

C alifornia’s redevelopment agencies got their start in 1945, when the state legislature authorized their creation to combat urban decay. At the time, politicians nationwide touted urban-renewal projects as a way to jump-start development in impoverished inner cities. Today, many urbanists recall these projects as a national travesty, a failed experiment in top-heavy government and liberal social engineering that obliterated neighborhoods, eroded property rights, gave developers downtown land on the cheap, uprooted city dwellers, and exacerbated urban problems.

The California law lets a city establish a redevelopment agency, governed by a board appointed by the city council—though in almost every case, the board members and the council members are one and the same. (A county, too, can create an RDA, through its board of supervisors.) The agency’s first task is to find urban blight. As a state senate committee explains it, “Before redevelopment officials can wield their extraordinary powers . . . they must determine if an area is blighted.” But the definition of blight is very broad: it can include not just unsafe buildings but also “incompatible land uses,” stagnant property values, either excessive urbanization or insufficient urbanization, and lack of modern infrastructure. So if a redevelopment agency wants to redevelop a particular area, it will find a definition that suits that area and once it issues a blight finding, the courts will rarely rebuke it.

After blight is found, the agency can start using those “extraordinary powers.” For instance, Michael Dardia explained in a 1998 report for the Public Policy Institute of California, RDAs “can assemble property for sale to private parties and can use eminent domain if necessary to acquire private property that they want to sell, often at a discount, to a private developer.” They can also offer incentives to that developer, subsidizing the construction of stadiums, hotels, auto malls, and retail stores, to take some common examples.

To pay for these subsidies, an RDA employs a novel mechanism called “tax-increment financing.” First, the agency issues debt—unlike city governments, it isn’t required to hold a public vote first—and bestows the borrowed money on the developers of its choice, who proceed to build within the designated “project area.” As property-tax revenues in the area rise, state law gives the RDA the entire increase in revenues the agency deserves it, the thinking goes, for making the stagnant area revive. The agency uses that tax increase, called the “increment,” to pay off its debt. This arrangement allowed RDAs to amass nearly $30 billion in debt by the end of the 2008–09 fiscal year, according to the state controller’s latest numbers.

But what happens to the public schools, which depend on property taxes to survive? By law, the state government must use its general fund to compensate the schools for the money that the RDA has diverted. That comes to a lot of money: again, RDAs consume about 12 percent of all statewide property taxes, and over half of that take would otherwise have gone to the schools. What this boils down to is that—at a time when the state must save billions—taxpayers throughout California are subsidizing the agencies, which in turn are subsidizing developers.

Redevelopment project areas are supposed to expire eventually, but like most government programs, they rarely do. The agencies repeatedly extend the life of the areas and continue floating debt, managing development decisions, and spending tens of millions of dollars to pay the planners, consultants, developers, and attorneys who specialize in the redevelopment process and are an effective lobby to ensure that it never dies. The redevelopment machine has also steadily expanded its footprint. “During the early years of California’s redevelopment law, few communities established project areas and project areas typically were small—usually 10 to 100 acres,” the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office recently reported. “Over the last 35 years, however, most cities and many counties have created project areas and the size of project areas has grown—several cover more than 20,000 acres each. . . . In some counties, local agencies have created so many project areas that more than 25 percent of all property tax revenue collected in the county [is] allocated to a redevelopment agency, not the schools, community colleges, or other local governments.”

I s there that much blight in California, or is something else going on here? History provides a clue. If blight removal were really the agencies’ mission, then you’d expect California’s redevelopment expansion to have taken place between the 1940s and the 1960s, when there was more real blight. Instead, more than half of the state’s RDAs were formed after 1978, when Proposition 13, by capping property-tax increases, threatened to impose spending limits on cities. “Since the property tax constraints imposed by Proposition 13 in 1978, local governments have been searching for new sources of revenue,” Dardia wrote. Redevelopment agencies were a windfall—not a way to revamp run-down areas but a way to divert money from the state.

The redevelopment industry keeps using the old urban-uplift rhetoric to justify its powers and budgets. “The abandoned gas station, dilapidated housing project, and a vacant strip mall that is continually vandalized are all examples of deteriorated and blighted areas,” says the California Redevelopment Association (CRA), the lobby that represents the RDAs. “Revitalization of these areas does not happen on its own. . . . Redevelopment serves as a catalyst for private investment by providing the initial plan and seed money that ultimately breathes new life into areas in need of economic development and new opportunity.” (The CRA, by the way, is funded mainly by member agencies, meaning that it amounts to a taxpayer-financed lobby.)

More and more, though, RDAs are dispensing with the pretense of fixing blight. Many are focusing less on tougher, older areas and instead are trying to lure new businesses to “greenfields”—lots on the outskirts of town. Some officials have placed their entire cities in redevelopment areas. And agencies explicitly advance various goals beyond blight removal, claiming to boost economic development, provide affordable housing, reenergize downtowns, and create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process.

D o these lofty growth claims hold water? Redevelopment officials arrive at them by taking credit for every new job and every new economic activity in a redevelopment area. But that isn’t a plausible boast. Crunching the numbers, Dardia found that after correcting for local real-estate trends, “redevelopment projects do not increase property values by enough to account for the tax increment revenues they receive. Overall, the agencies stimulated enough growth to cover just above half of those tax revenues. The rest resulted from local trends.”

Further, RDAs typically engage in “growth capture,” waiting until an area is on the upswing and then swooping down and grabbing properties on behalf of developers. This tactic helps the agencies, which receive a bonanza from the area’s already-rising property taxes, but it does nothing to improve downtrodden urban cores. Old Town Pasadena, which has become lovely, would no doubt have revived without redevelopment cash.

Redevelopment is also based heavily on the mistaken premise that big, often tourist-oriented projects—stadiums, theme parks, Costcos—are the key to the economic growth of cities. In 1997, the Brookings Institution’s Roger Noll and Andrew Zimbalist debunked the idea that stadiums in particular draw much revenue to a region, concluding that “a new sports facility has an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment. No recent facility appears to have earned anything approaching a reasonable return on investment.” Nevertheless, in Sacramento, where basketball’s Sacramento Kings are planning a move to Anaheim, officials are reviving talks of a new arena to lure another team—a plan that may include redevelopment and tax subsidies.

Though the RDAs’ claims are inflated, it’s certainly true that they can increase economic activity in the areas they target. But even that isn’t necessarily a good thing because they’re sucking most of that growth away from other places in California. As Brown explained in his budget proposal, “There is little evidence that redevelopment projects attract business to the state. Studies indicated most of the business development is simply shifted from elsewhere in the state.”

Southern California residents don’t care whether they buy their Hondas in the Cerritos Auto Mall or up the 605 freeway in El Monte. California’s cities care, though, and for good reason: they keep one cent of every dollar spent within their borders. That’s a powerful incentive for them to want retail centers rather than, say, factories. And so cities offer rich incentives to entice and satisfy such companies, which in turn often play the cities for fools. In 1999, Costco demanded that the city of Lancaster condemn a nearby competitor, the 99 Cents Only Store, or else Costco would move to neighboring Palmdale. The 99 Cents Only Store and the Costco were in the same shopping complex both were in the same condition. Nevertheless, Lancaster’s redevelopment agency proceeded to condemn the 99 Cents Only Store, whose owner fought the condemnation and won—a rare victory over an RDA in court. Eventually, the city gave Costco land in a public park.

T he biggest problem with the entire redevelopment model is that central planners—whether they’re working in European bureaucracies or in stucco-clad government buildings in Southern California—can rarely predict consumer demand with accuracy. Consider some of the absurd projects that the RDAs have embraced. When I covered Orange County politics in 2005, redevelopment officials in the older, working-class city of Garden Grove had decided that their city needed to be a world-class resort, like nearby Anaheim. So they were trying to condemn an entire neighborhood of well-kept 1960s-era suburban houses and market the land to a yet-to-be-determined theme-park developer. The city council eventually halted the plan after residents protested at City Hall.

That project went away, but the local RDA retained the power to pursue equally bad ideas. “Even in a city that has entertained the most improbable of dreams, the latest plan to woo tourists and big bucks to Garden Grove is off the charts,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2007. “An Indian tribe has formally proposed building a Las Vegas–style casino complex just up the road from Disneyland in the latest and far and away most lavish plan for making Garden Grove a tourist destination. The Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe’s proposal calls for two opulent casinos housing 7,500 slot machines, two upscale hotels, a 10,000-seat stadium and—the topper—a promise of a college scholarship for every high school graduate in Garden Grove.” Other plans were sillier still: “One developer proposed a Latino theme park, another pitched a replica of the London Bridge across a fake river, and Middle Eastern investors wanted to build a museum dedicated to the late King Hussein of Jordan.”

Even in the projects that redevelopment supporters like to highlight, it’s hard to see the benefits. Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson wrote in the Sacramento Bee that “redevelopment has also helped strengthen the core of our city, the downtown. For example, K Street is now attracting a wide range of entertainment and restaurant choices to boost the economy.” My office is a block from K Street, which has long been the city’s prime redevelopment focus, so I can testify that it remains a symbol of downtown blight, riddled with vagrants and vacant storefronts. As the Sacramento Press reported in 2009, “With a 45 percent ground floor vacancy rate, K Street’s health is currently struggling. In an effort to help the street improve the blocks between 7th and 13th streets, the city has been pumping millions upon millions of dollars into projects to then watch little to no improvements in foot traffic, empty store fronts and public safety. The list of subsidized projects is getting longer every year.”

T he RDAs’ diverted funds and failed promises are reason enough to get rid of them, but their abuses of property rights are the last straw. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial 2005 Kelo decision allowed the use of eminent domain for economic-development purposes, most states followed the court’s additional advice and reformed their eminent-domain rules to make it harder for redevelopment agencies to drive property owners off their land. California failed to pass serious reform, however, and its RDAs continue to confiscate private property. In 2002, for example, the city of Cypress’s RDA invoked eminent domain to seize property owned by the Cottonwood Christian Center and transfer it to retail stores. City officials pointed out that churches, unlike stores, don’t pay many taxes. After years of legal wrangling, the city and church cut a deal that allowed both retail development and a church.

Such proceedings are manifestly unfair, of course. But they also wreak economic damage by diminishing property rights and confusing expectations. I once interviewed a developer who owned a strip mall in Southern California. He wanted to rebuild it, but it was in a redevelopment area, so he had no secure property rights. Sure, he could invest a few million dollars in the project, but because he feared that the city would take the property away, he sat on it. I remember another area that was being threatened by eminent domain. Activity stopped in the neighborhood—until the day after the local RDA’s plan was halted, when owners went back to work improving their properties and expanding their businesses.

I f cities want to spur economic growth, they have a far more effective approach at their disposal—one pioneered by Anaheim. In the 1970s, the city’s redevelopment agency bulldozed part of the seedy but historic downtown, planning to create a new downtown district by luring new companies that would build high-rises and other attractions. But it’s easier to demolish old buildings than it is to find investors to put up new ones, so the result was parking lots and vacant land. The downtown remains largely a ghost town more than three decades later.

But starting in 2002, under the leadership of former mayor Curt Pringle and current mayor Tom Tait, the city embraced a freedom-friendly approach to land use. Their target was an area called the Platinum Triangle, a collection of one-story warehouses that they wanted to become a new downtown with high-rise condos, hotels, restaurants, and shopping. Instead of taking the redevelopment approach—creating a project area and then forcing businesses to leave—the city “upzoned” the Triangle, allowing far more uses for the land. This was a great stroke of luck for the area’s businesses: they could stay if they chose (the city outlawed eminent domain for economic development), but most sold out to developers, who paid handsome sums for land that was now zoned for more valuable residential and office uses. Then the city encouraged the developers to bring their plans to City Hall. The area boomed with high-rises constructed in a couple of years (though it did hit hard times after the real-estate bubble burst).

The lesson: deregulation and private enterprise work better than central planning. Developers don’t need subsidies and eminent domain to build in older cities they need the relaxation of burdensome government rules and a reduction in taxes, which tend to be higher in urban cores. And they need the freedom to develop their own plans, rather than blueprints from city-hall planners.

P rior to Governor Brown’s proposal, state legislators had made many efforts to grab some of the RDAs’ funds. Brown, far more radically, would dissolve the agencies entirely and create successor agencies to pay off the existing bond debt. It’s a welcome idea, though Brown has also proposed making it easier for localities to hike taxes and borrow by lowering the voter-approval threshold from a two-thirds majority to 55 percent. The last thing California cities need, given their propensity to spend money on outsize pay and pension packages for public employees, is increased authority to raise taxes.

The agencies haven’t taken Brown’s proposal lying down. Mere days after the governor announced it, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Los Angeles’ redevelopment agency board hastily voted Friday to commit $930 million of agency money to the city to carry out redevelopment projects for years to come—presumably moving the money out of the state’s reach. The move, which would have to be approved by the Los Angeles City Council, would tie up the money the agency expects to take in via property taxes through 2016 and keep the funds from reverting to counties and [the] school district as called for in the governor’s plan.” Similarly, news reports across the state depicted RDAs spending feverishly on half-baked projects—including those that council members had previously shown little interest in funding—simply to tie up money. The projects included the funding of fast-food restaurants, shopping malls, and a skating rink. Whether the state’s legislature or courts will intervene remains to be seen.

What also remains to be seen is whether the California State Assembly, which didn’t approve Brown’s proposal in March, will ever see reason. Perhaps the assembly should remember the words of Johnson, the Sacramento mayor, who has praised redevelopment projects as “magical things.” He speaks more truly than he knows. Emblematic of the magical thinking that has smothered California’s finances, RDAs are unfair, uneconomical, and ineffective. Brown is right to try to eliminate them.

Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Journalism Center in Sacramento.


The Water War

Beyond the Missouri River, water has been almost a sacred commodity—accorded the same passionate respect that it received in the Bible lands. There is an old saying in the West: “Steal my horse, carry off my wife, but don’t touch my water.” Ever since the American frontier reached the great bend of the Missouri, water—or the lack of it—has been the chief determinant of western development. And from the time that the first farmer fenced a water hole on the open range, it has been the West’s chief source of conflict. Texas and New Mexico contended over the Rio Grande. Colorado battled Kansas over the Arkansas River, then turned to fight Wyoming for the North Platte. California took on all comers in the struggle for the Colorado River.

Ordinarily, these epic contests were fought in the realm of water law. Throughout most of the Far West, this body of law was based on the miner’s code of “first in use, first in right”--even though the benefited land was not contiguous to the water source. But in California, water law flowed from two origins--the priority rights established by the early American miners, and the riparian rights for contiguous land, according to the Spanish tradition and the English common law.

The complications brought on by this clash of two traditions intensified the water struggle in California and put a premium on legal cunning. While most western fights over water took place in the courtroom or the legislative hall, Californians fought many of theirs outside the law because one side or another distrusted legal machinery. This was the basis of violence in the Los Angeles-Owens Valley conflict. Not only was it the most savage water war in United States history it provided an early warning of a disturbing modern trend--the inability of outlying communities to protect their identity and their way of life from being swallowed by Megalopolis.

In the long drought that afflicted California from 1892 to 1904, the burgeoning city of Los Angeles appeared to have reached its limit at a population of approximately 200,000. City parks and residential lawns were allowed to dry up. Irrigation canals were commandeered to supply drinking water. If Los Angeles could not find a new water source—and quickly—it would no longer be able to absorb the steady tide of newcomers from the Midwest. To the Los Angeles boosters, such a catastrophe was unthinkable.

One man stepped forward to lead the Angelenos out of their dilemma. William Mulholland, an Irish immigrant, had arrived in 1877 with ten dollars in his pocket and the resolve to “grow with the country.” Within nine years he had become superintendent of the company supplying water to the city, and when the company was purchased by Los Angeles in 1902, Mulholland was placed in charge of the entire waterworks. He had risen by hard work, by diligent study of engineering books late into the night, and--most important--by sheer force of personality. His supreme self-confidence inspired city authorities to act upon his recommendations alone, without further study. “They have always been,” he once said, “in the habit of taking my word.”

With this kind of authority, Mulholland charged forth in the late summer of 1904 to combat the city’s water shortage. Since local sources were already tapped, he looked afield for a new supply. His friend Fred Eaton, a former Los Angeles mayor, had once told him of a magnificent water source on the east side of the Sierra Nevadas. Desperately, he now asked Eaton to show it to him.

In September the two friends climbed into a two-horse buckboard and headed north. Camping in the open, they drove 250 miles over a rutted wagon road across the Mojave Desert to Owens Valley. Through this green oasis, nestled against the east scarp of the High Sierra like some remote Alpine vale, flowed stream upon stream of fresh snow water. They converged into the Owens River, which coursed down the valley and lost itself in the alkaline pollution of Owens Lake, one of the world’s rare dead seas.

In the 1860’s pioneer American farmers had wrested the valley from the Paiute Indians, and by the seventies were beginning to divert water from the river and its tributaries into large canals to irrigate the land. By the time Mulholland reached the valley in 1904, he found a population of some five thousand and a small empire—about 38,000 acres—of fruit orchards, melon vines, and cool alfalfa. It was truly a “land flowing with milk and honey.”

But in the meandering river and its feeder streams Mulholland saw only one thing: enough water to supply two million people and allow his own stunted city to grow into a giant. What was more, according to Fred Eaton’s rough calculations, the river could be diverted around Owens Lake and brought south all the way to Los Angeles by gravity, without the aid of a single pump.

It would, of course, be years before the city would grow enough to use the entire flow of the river. But in the meantime, to maintain title to the water under the law of prior use, the surplus could be used by farmers in San Fernando Valley, adjacent to Los Angeles. The whole project would represent the biggest municipal aqueduct in the world--a breathtaking project for a self-educated engineer. Immediately, Mulholland was captured by the boldness of Fred Eaton’s concept. “When I saw it staring me in the face,” he later declared, “I couldn’t back away from it.” While Mulholland sold the plan to Los Angeles authorities, Eaton went through lower Owens Valley lining up riparian water rights.

Trouble loomed in the valley’s own ambitions for water development. The young United States Reclamation Service, founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, had proposed a dam in the Owens River gorge to store water for irrigating the valley below. Its isolation and its limited area would keep the region from becoming a major agricultural empire like the one being carved out in the imperial Valley. But by providing an assured water supply year in and year out, the proposed reclamation project would certainly bring to Owens Valley a new order of life and prosperity. In this clash of interests the city had a key ally. The chief Reclamation Service engineer for the Southwest was T. B. Lippincott, a friend of Eaton and Mulholland, and by “religion” an ardent Los Angeles booster. At his insistence, consideration of the Owens River reclamation project was abandoned to make way for the city’s water plans.

When the Los Angeles Times broke the news in July, 1905, of a “Titanic Project to Give City a River,” there were two distinct reactions. Among the boosters there was immediate jubilation: the city’s wonderful growth would not be halted for lack of water! Within hours, property in much of the county doubled in price.

But in Owens Valley a different reaction greeted the Times story. All at once its people saw their reclamation dream go glimmering. Fred Eaton and his son, finishing some last-minute affairs in the valley town of Bishop, saw an ugly mob gathering around them in the street. They hurriedly packed and drove their buggy out of town, but before he escaped, Eaton was told that he would “never take the water out of the valley” and that if he came back he would be drowned in the river.

Nor was valley anger cooled by reports that water which Los Angeles did not actually need for the next few years would be used for irrigating the San Fernando Valley. As early as 1903, a syndicate of Los Angeles entrepreneurs had taken an option on a large chunk of that valley. Not very long afterward it was joined by Moses H. Sherman, who was a member of the Board of Water Commissioners. After Mulholland outlined his aqueduct plan to city officials, but before it was publicly announced, the syndicate exercised its option and bought 16,200 acres. The land thus purchased at approximately $30 an acre was to soar to $300 an acre. Today it is valued by the front foot. When operations of the syndicate were made public in 1905, Owens Valley people believed they were the victims of an outrageous water grab for the benefit of a few land schemers. Awaiting their chance, they moved to block Mulholland when he asked for a right of way for his proposed aqueduct across federal lands. “Not one drop for irrigation!” they shouted, pointing to the San Fernando deal.

The battle that followed raged from the floor of Congress to the White House. To prevent profiteering on the water itself, President Roosevelt proposed an amendment to the right-of-way bill that would prohibit Los Angeles from selling water to corporations or individuals for resale. Thus altered, the right-of-way bill passed Congress in June, 1906. But it contained no prohibition against the use of Owens River water for irrigation in the San Fernando Valley.

Inspired by this victory, the Angelenos moved to consolidate their water gains in Owens Valley. Once again the federal government was called upon for help. To forestall private claimants who might harass the city’s program, the Reclamation Service had continued to bar entry to public lands that had been within its abandoned project. But this did not include most of the flatland of the valley. The Angelenos thereupon asked Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot to extend national-forest boundaries to include the valley, even though the Forest Service Law forbade the reservation of land more valuable “for agricultural purposes than for forest purposes.”

Owens Valley people were outraged. Throughout the region, they cried, the only trees were those they themselves had planted. Nevertheless, in April of 1908 Pinchot’s decree extending the Sierra Forest Reserve was signed by the President. The city was tightening its grip. “Los Angeles has been given all that she asked for,” groaned one valley editor, adding ominously, “except the water.”

But the intrepid Mulholland, who had secured $25,000,000 in two bond elections to finance the big ditch, was already in the field turning the earth.

Over most of the 240-mile route he faced a forbidding desert, devoid of the necessities of life, innocent of supply lines, crisscrossed by jagged mountains, and cursed with brutal heat. Fortunately the rugged Irishman thrived on challenge. Since steam power was impractical over this arid route, he built two hydroelectric plants in Owens Valley and strung 169 miles of transmission lines--making his aqueduct the first major engineering project in the United Slates constructed principally by electric power. He solved part of the hauling problem by building another plant near the line of march to supply the million barrels of cement he estimated he would need. And for the heavy transportation the Southern Pacific Railroad took a hand and built a standard-gauge branch line northward into Owens Valley.

Then, over sterile wasteland and through mountain ranges, Mulholland drove his giant ditch. Along the whole line the monumental work was accomplished with new engineering triumphs. Digging his tunnels, particularly the five-mile Elizabeth Tunnel that bored through the Coast Range into southern California, Mulholland’s crew equaled, then repeatedly raised, the world’s hardrock drilling record. To take water across the deep canyons of the Sierra foothills the ditch was converted into monstrous inverted siphons--one of them built to withstand a greater head of water than any other pipe in the nation. Hauling sections of steel pipe to this siphon from the nearest rail point required wagon teams of fifty-two mules each.

By the middle of 1912, in spite of physical obstacles, financial problems, and labor discontent, Mulholland was able to report to the city that “the end of our task seems fairly in sight.” But he was nearly exhausted from tension and overwork. “If it were not for looking ahead to the time of reward …” he once said, “I could not go on with the work, for I am worn out.”

That time came on November 5, 1913, when Mulholland’s big ditch was put into operation with a huge ceremony at the northeast corner of San Fernando Valley. At the point where the aqueduct came through the mountains, an artificial cascade had been built to display the water as it splashed into the valley. To this spot on the appointed day came thousands of Angelenos—by carriage, auto, and train. Around a flag-draped platform they gathered for the preliminary speeches above on the mountainside a crew of men stood at the gates, ready to crank wheels that would release the first Owens River water. Mulholland himself gave them the signal by unfurling the Stars and Stripes on a flagpole. The assembly cheered, cannons boomed, a brass band played furiously. Down the causeway came a torrent of water—foaming, dancing, churning, spraying its mist over the nearest bystanders. Without waiting for the presentation speeches the entire multitude rushed to the side of the cascade. Left virtually without an audience, the exuberant Mulholland turned to the mayor, who was to receive the water on behalf of the city, and made the five-word speech that has become famous:

In this triumphant moment Los Angeles—and all of California—turned to shower adulation on William Mulholland. The aqueduct was recognized across the country as the finest in the United States. As an engineering feat it was second only to the great Panama Canal. The University of California gave Mulholland an honorary doctor’s degree, and he was introduced everywhere as “the Goethals of the West” and as “California’s greatest man.”

Virtually overnight, Los Angeles moved from water famine to water flood. The San Fernando Valley was transformed from a grain-raising community dependent on intermittent rainfall to an empire of truck gardens and orchards—one of the richest agricultural communities in the nation. In 1915 practically the entire valley joined the city. With their sure water supply as a lure, the Los Angeles boosters were able to annex one community after another to create the biggest municipal area in the world.

But for all his engineering genius, Mulholland had omitted one vital feature from his Owens River project—a major reservoir. In his anxiety to get water to the city, he had simply diverted the river to Los Angeles the only reservoirs were those necessary for the month-to-month operation of the aqueduct. He had, it was true, tapped the river below the valley’s main center of agriculture, so that under ordinary circumstances both farmers and city dwellers would have enough water. But without a reservoir there was no means of storing the precipitation of the wet years when the dry years came, there was insufficient water to supply both the city and the valley. Upon this predicament the Owens Valley water war was reborn, and it was to become more savage than ever.

The obvious site for such a reservoir was the same that had been planned for the ill-fated federal reclamation project. A dam located in the Owens River gorge upstream from the valley, above the town of Bishop, would back up a magnificent lake in Long Valley. Fred Eaton, who owned the site, had offered to sell it to Los Angeles for something like a million dollars. But Mulholland, believing his friend was trying to take advantage of the city, refused. Eaton then gave up an easement for a reservoir that could have been created by a hundred-foot dam, but such a reservoir was too small to serve as a year-to-year regulator. When the city began constructing the dam anyway, the settlers of Owens Valley filed an injunction suit: they would never stand for a dam on their river unless it was big enough to assure water for all. Caught between Fred Eaton and the valley farmers, Los Angeles abandoned its dam. The Owens River was left uncontrolled, and the first dry spell set the city and the valley at each other’s throats.

By 1923 the great aqueduct that had been built for fifty years of growth was already proving inadequate. Los Angeles, enjoying its biggest real-estate boom, had outgrown its old rival, San Francisco. In the lush San Fernando Valley the farmers would have used almost the entire flow of the aqueduct in the summer months if Mulholland had not arbitrarily shut off irrigation water.

Desperate for water, Mulholland invaded Owens Valley in quest of new sources. In the lower valley, where the city already owned most of the water rights, he sank new wells to tap the underground basin. And in the upper valley, which was still green with growing crops, his agents tried to buy water rights from the farmers in order to send a bigger flow into the aqueduct.

They found the valley organized against them. Leading the settlers were two brothers, Wilfred and Mark Watterson, whose five banks dominated the economic life of eastern California. Mark, the younger, was a good-natured mixer, inclined to follow the lead of his older brother. Wilfred, though more dignified and aloof, was nevertheless extremely well-liked when meeting with a group of men he had the ability, as one observer put it, to “talk ‘em out of their hind legs.”

To prevent the city from getting further water rights in Owens Valley, the Wattersons conceived the idea of tying all the irrigation canals together in one large Owens Valley Irrigation District. With their customary persuasiveness they had put their plan over in an election late in 1922. But before the water rights had actually been turned over to the new district, the city made its move. Overnight two agents moved through the farmhouses along the McNally ditch, one of the oldest and largest irrigation canals on the river, offering premium prices for water rights. By next morning they had taken more than a million dollars’ worth of options. When this news flew through Bishop, the people fairly exploded with rage. The city thought it had smashed the irrigation district? Very well, they would see that no water secured in the McNally deal would ever reach the aqueduct.

Soon every farm canal above the city’s intake was gulping all the water it could carry, and overflowing onto marginal cropland. Below the last valley canal the bed of the river was dry as the desert. In the spring of 1923 Los Angeles was tapping its capital funds of water in the aqueduct reservoirs. In San Fernando Valley the crops were condemned to die. And in Owens Valley the city’s predicament in paying for a million dollars’ worth of water it could not deliver became an uproarious joke.

Mulholland had reckoned without the human factor. Embattled farmers at the source of water were threatening the very life of Los Angeles. In this frantic moment his water department made another error.

The last big ditch before the mouth of the aqueduct was the Owens River and Big Pine Canal, which was drinking in all the water not siphoned off by the canals upstream. At first the city’s agents tried to buy water rights in the Big Pine ditch. But the Big Piners formed a “pool” and demanded rates roughly double those paid along the McNally ditch. The city agents thereupon resorted to what one called “primitive measures.” The Big Pine intake was located at the point of a U-bend in the meandering river. One morning the Big Piners discovered city workmen with mules and scrapers cutting a ditch across the neck of the bend. If the river were diverted through such a ditch, the Big Pine Canal would be dry and the aqueduct would be gurgling with water. It was an astounding piece of deviltry for a municipality to engage in, but the municipality was powerfully thirsty.

Quickly the Big Piners rose to give battle. A posse of about twenty armed men--some on horseback, some in Model T’s--poured across Owens River to serve what one of them called a “shotgun injunction.” To the city workmen they gave stern notice: “We don’t want any shootin’, but we’re not goin’ to let you make that cut.” With that they threw the city’s grading equipment into the river and settled down to guard the strategic bend. For two nights, relieving each other around the clock, the minutemen of Big Pine kept up their vigil. Finally, seeing that the city was not prepared to fight, they struck camp.

“Los Angeles, it’s your move now,” challenged the Big Pine newspaper. “We’re ready for you.”

Faced with this firm opposition, the city reopened negotiations for purchase—this time on Big Pine terms. Two months later the Big Pine farmers sold out for a total of $1,100,000—a price that made many a family financially independent.

Such rates now gave the water war a new turn. Seeing the color of the city’s money, the other canal groups determined to sell out too. There were, to be sure, many families whose love of the land made them oppose sale at any price, but fearing they would be left to maintain a canal without the help of neighbors, they sold against their will. Still, from the moment of the McNally and Big Pine deals, the water war was chiefly a contest between valley farmers who wanted to force Los Angeles to buy them out at high prices, and city representatives who merely wanted to get the use of water rights they had already bought. To enforce their demands, the farmers of the upper valley continued to divert most of the city’s water into their own canals.

By March of 1924 this strategy was working well. Los Angeles was getting so little water that Mulholland prohibited irrigation in San Fernando Valley “until we get a rainfall.” Faced with destruction of their crops, the San Fernando farmers sent a delegation up to Owens Valley to buy a chunk of water. The Watterson brothers led a local delegation which escorted the San Fernandans along canals brimming full with clear Sierra water. Not one drop of it, said the hosts, was for sale. The entire upper valley, land and water, was for sale, however it could be delivered in forty-eight hours—for $8,000,000. If the Angelenos needed the water so badly, they ought to be willing to pay what it would be worth in Los Angeles.

Back to the city went the San Fernando delegation. Within two months the city gave its answer. Suit was filed against the upper valley canals to recover the McNally and Big Pine water that Los Angeles had purchased. The Owens Valley people, fearing they could never defeat the city in court, prepared for violence.

On May 20, 1924, three boxes of dynamite were taken from the Watterson powder house at Bishop. A dynamiting job required no more than one or two experts. But some forty valley patriots assembled south of town for the excitement. In a caravan of cars the conspirators filed down the valley highway that evening while bystanders stood gaping. A few miles north of the town of Lone Pine they pulled off the road and began their work. Shortly after 1 A.M . , the lower valley was awakened as if by an earthquake. Forty feet of concrete ditch was blasted away, but a great shower of rocks fell back into the hole and prevented most of the water from escaping. Quickly the dynamiters scattered over byroads to find their way back to Bishop while the valley came alive with the frantic activity of city aqueduct employees.

The preliminary skirmishing was over the water contest had become a shooting war. Enraged at this attack on his aqueduct, Mulholland hurled a diatribe against Owens Valley ranchers that included such terms as “yellow” and “barking dogs.” From the north came immediate warning that if he ever set foot in Bishop he would be lynched.

“They wouldn’t have the nerve,” roared the old fighter. “I’d just as soon walk the whole length of Owens Valley unarmed.”

But the valley men had succeeded in rousing the city’s interest in their plight. From the south came a parade of excited Angelenos—reporters, committees, engineers, and finally the Los Angeles water board. Accompanying its members was Mulholland, who made good his defiance of Owens Valley hotheads. At Bishop they were told by Wilfred Watterson that the only fair solution was to buy the whole district. Instead, when the commissioners returned to Los Angeles they drew up a plan to insure a sufficient water supply for the remaining valley farmers. They further promised, in compensation for loss of business from previous land purchases, to help build up the valley communities by highway improvements that would increase tourist trade.

A month later the valley gave its answer—in violence. On the morning of November 16, 1924, Mark Watterson led a little army of between sixty and a hundred men in an auto parade down the length of Owens Valley. They seized the aqueduct at the Alabama Gates, near Lone Pine, and turned the water out through an overflow spillway. Almost immediately the city’s representative in the valley, Edward F. Leahey, arrived at the gates, in defiance of a warning to stay away. Leaving his car at the foot of the hill, he hiked up the slope to the wheelhouse. Through one of its windows a noose suddenly appeared and dangled before his eyes. Without blanching, he continued to the top. Six men, including Watterson, met him.

“Who’s in charge here?” Leahey demanded.

“We’re all in charge,” returned Watterson.

“You can’t contend we have no right to this water,” shouted Leahey. “It’s not hurting anybody going down the ditch.”

“Don’t you realize,” Watterson snapped, “that whether people are damaged or think they are, the effect is the same?”

The strategy was plain enough. This was not an attempt to seize water, for the aqueduct was located downstream from the valley’s center of resistance. It was a demonstration, through which the valley hoped at most to force the city to buy them out, and at least to publicize the affair throughout California. To the reporters who quickly gathered, the settlers gave their manifesto: “We are here to keep this spillway open. We will stay here until we are driven out or dragged out.”

Against this threat Los Angeles first tried legal action. The local sheriff soon arrived on the scene and served seventy-five copies of a restraining order. But the men at the gates simply threw them into the rushing spillway. Then they picked up the sheriff and carried him in a sitting position back to his car.

The city next tried to get warrants for the arrest of the demonstrators. But the valley judge, sympathizing with the ranchers, declared himself disqualified to act. The men at the spillway were left to laugh at the law.

Exasperated, the Los Angeles water department sent a request for help to neighboring sheriffs in southern California. Their combined forces were then offered in support of the Owens Valley sheriff. But he was busy pleading with Governor F. W. Richardson to call out the National Guard—an idea which the Governor steadfastly resisted.

By this time the stand at the Alabama Gates had become a grand picnic for the valley settlers. Up in Bishop practically every store was closed. On the flagpole in the center of town hung a large sign: “If I am not on the job, you can find me at the aqueduct.” At the gates, ranchers and businessmen gathered about campfires in cheerful conversation while their wives brought hot meals from nearby homes. The congenial crowd had swelled to fifteen hundred, many of whom had brought stoves, tents, and beds. On the fourth day they had a barbecue, entertained the sheriff, and even invited the city’s own aqueduct employees.

But later on their intensity of purpose returned. Gathered earnestly around the fires, the farm families passed along hymn books brought by the Baptist minister of Bishop. Soon the mighty strains of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” floated across the valley. For these stalwarts, Satan was a city, and they battled for the Lord.

That righteous refrain was not lost on the outside world. The story of California’s little civil war was headlined across the nation and featured as far away as France and Sweden. Throughout the state, resentment against the upstart city of Los Angeles put sympathy on the side of the farmers. Even in Los Angeles sentiment was divided, though William Randolph Ream’s Examiner charged that the seizure was the “big card in a gigantic holdup scheme.”

By no coincidence, Wilfred Watterson was in Los Angeles when the demonstration occurred. Meeting with his fellow bankers of the Clearing House Association, he addressed them for an hour, recommending the outright purchase of the Owens Valley Irrigation District. Here, of course, was the principal aim of the valley plan. Los Angeles might call it a “holdup,” but the embattled farmers believed they were simply giving forceful emphasis to their plea to “buy us all or leave us alone.” Since Los Angeles had not listened, they had done something to make it listen.

But for Wilfred Watterson the Los Angeles bankers had short words. Unless he got the gates closed, they are said to have told him, they would cut off his bank’s credit. They agreed, however, to use their “best efforts with the business interests of this city to bring about an equitable settlement.” Back to the valley went Watterson. Meeting with leaders of the spillway crowd, he asked them to disperse in response to the promise of the Los Angeles bankers. After holding the water supply of a great city in their hands for four days, they went back to their homes.

While the negotiations immediately following the gate seizure came to nothing, the valley people had made one point: they had convinced the Los Angeles water board that it could not afford to get its water from a hostile community. Up to Owens Valley went a top city representative to assess the situation. Returning, he went before the water commissioners and told them the bitter truth.

“The only way to settle things up there,” he said, “is to buy out the rest of the valley.”

“My God!” cried one of the members. “How much will that cost?”

“Five or six million dollars,” was the cool answer.

Such a figure was far above any previous water investment. It meant both a tacit admission of past mistakes and a partial concession to the Watterson group. But early in 1925 the commissioners said they were ready to buy all land tributary to the Owens River.

Within a few days, Wilfred Watterson was in Los Angeles negotiating the sale of a large “pool” of property on the Bishop Creek ditch. By the end of March the city bought the entire length of the canal. It looked as though the valley people had brought the city to terms, and that the long war was over.

But one issue had never been cleared up. For years valley merchants had demanded “reparations” from the city to compensate for the loss of customers who had sold their homes and departed. Except for its offer to improve highways to attract tourists to the valley, Los Angeles coldly refused to accept any responsibility. The bitter question raged all the way to the state legislature at Sacramento, where the valley secured passage of a law to hold the city accountable. But Los Angeles officials then insisted that nothing could be done short of a test case in court. The valley people, with the farmer’s inherent distrust of lawyers, refused to launch one.

Still another sore was reopened in the negotiations for city purchase of the last of the big ditches, the Owens River Canal. With only $41,000 separating the two sides in a $2,500,000 deal, the talks suddenly burst into loud recriminations. The Watterson brothers and one of the city men almost came to blows before they were separated. Almost immediately after the negotiations were broken off, city wells in the Bishop area were dynamited, and another “shot” was planted in the side of the aqueduct.

After a temporary truce, the war had erupted more furiously than before. For weeks valley people were gathering their forces for what one of them called “the last stand.” On March 19, 1927, they opened their campaign with a full-page ad in leading newspapers of the state, describing the valley’s struggle under the heading, “We Who Are About to Die.” Four days later the city replied by announcing a deadline beyond which it would not buy Owens Valley land. City agent Leahey was horrified.

“If you do that,” he warned, “they’ll start dynamiting again.”

Ten days after the deadline passed, a valley rancher bought a large amount of blasting gelatin at the Hercules Powder plant in Martinez, California. A final letter was sent to various Los Angeles officials and civic groups demanding action before the city’s policy would “inflame real American citizens to violence.” When no answer had been received in two weeks, the violence began. Ten men descended on No Name Siphon, one of the largest pipe sections on the aqueduct, and blew it up. While the culprits escaped northward, the whole flow of the conduit gushed into the desert. Rushing up from Los Angeles to repair the break, the furious Mulholland told reporters he could not comment “without using unprintable language.”

Close upon this blow, the dynamiters placed two more shots against the aqueduct system. With his entire aqueduct threatened, Mulholland at last decided to fight back.

Northward into Owens Valley rattled a special Southern Pacific train loaded with a hundred armed men—veterans of World War I. Up and down the aqueduct they mounted their stations. When their arrival was greeted with another blast the following night, reinforcements came immediately. The lower valley along the line of the conduit was virtually under martial law. At night searchlights scanned the highway for suspicious movements. Autos were flagged down, and the guards inspected the interiors with flashlights.

But the valley had only begun to fight. Nearly sixty Winchesters were shipped to the Watterson hardware store in Bishop, where they were passed across the counter into willing hands. Fortunately a pitched battle never occurred. But under the very noses of the aqueduct guards the dynamiters continued to lay a shot in the ribs of the aqueduct whenever they chose. There was a total of fourteen dynamitings within two months “shooting the duck” had become the leading outdoor sport of Owens Valley.

Reeling from these blows, the Los Angeles water department turned its attack on the leaders of the valley, the Watterson brothers. Early in August two of Mulholland’s men entered the Sacramento office of the state corporation commissioner.

“We have reason to believe,” one of them reported solemnly, “that corporate funds are being used for dynamiting the aqueduct.”

That night, at the request of the corporation commissioner, a state banking investigator caught a train for Owens Valley. What he discovered at one of the Watterson banks in Bishop surprised even the Los Angeles officials. Wholesale juggling of books had left the bank and various other Watterson enterprises approximately $2,000,000 short. An incurable speculator, Wilfred Watterson had sunk fortunes in unsound industrial ventures, and to cover his losses had tapped personal funds entrusted to his care by lifelong friends and neighbors. To the city water people, this explained his ravenous appetite for Los Angeles money—explained, too, his refusal to take the valley’s fight into a court of law. Convicted of embezzlement on November 11, 1927, both the Wattersons were sent to San Quentin prison. The bewildered valley people suddenly found themselves without leadership.

Los Angeles had won a greater victory than it had expected. Moving to make a final valley settlement, it bought the remaining Owens Valley Canal in 1929. The following year the Angelenos voted $12,000,000 in bonds to “clean up Owens Valley” with this huge fund the city bought up practically all the town properties in Big Pine and Bishop. Though the purchases took place in the Depression, Los Angeles paid boom prices that had prevailed in 1923--the year that its invasion made its first impact on the valley.

To the Angelenos it was an expensive and even embarrassing program--constituting an admission of gross errors in Owens Valley. To the valley people who had spearheaded the fight against the city it could be considered a final victory they had won a fatter settlement than those who had sold out in the beginning. But to most of the settlers, who wanted only to live out their lives on the land undisturbed, it was a tragic ending to a bitter feud. As they piled their belongings onto their cars and headed out of Owens Valley, they could echo Jeremiah’s lament: “Our inheritance is turned to strangers.” Wrote one of them, “It is not the loss of the home, or the garden … or the growing business which has been the test it’s the loss of the years, and the hope and the endeavor …” In the stunted remains of abandoned orchards, Angelenos may still see the swath their city cut in its inexorable drive for water—and bigness.

The exodus from Owens Valley was not lost upon California’s literati. Not since Longfellow’s Evangeline had the dispossession of a people been the source of such pathos. Embattled critics charged that the aqueduct was conceived by the San Fernando land syndicate purely to reap swollen profits at public expense that Los Angeles “forced the ranchers to sell to the city at condemnation prices and get out” that it took water from the river forcibly without a legal right.

Even the Owens Valley people made no such claims. Fred Eaton and no other had conceived the Owens River project. In practically every case ranchers sold to the city because they were offered highly attractive prices. Los Angeles took extreme care to establish legal water rights from the beginning, and for several years it was prevented from using part of these rights because of forcible diversions by some of the ranchers.

But surely the Owens Valley episode offered Angelenos little cause for pride. At the beginning the city used questionable political methods to kill federal reclamation efforts in Owens Valley, gain rights of way, and hold water filings it failed to build a reservoir at the head of the aqueduct that would have prevented the water crisis of the 1920’s and for several years it pursued a policy of buying only the water rights it needed, without accepting responsibility for the effect of this invasion on either the economic life or the morale of the Owens Valley community.

By the mid-1930’s Los Angeles was moving to write the last chapter to its adventure by correcting an early mistake. Long Valley, the reservoir site, was purchased from Eaton and his associates, and the big dam was constructed in the gorge. Completed in 1941, it created Crowley Lake, which stores enough water from year to year to have supplied both city and valley back in the turbulent twenties. At the dedication ceremony one valley spokesman looked back over a generation of tumult and pronounced a weary finale:

“We cannot but regret that this enterprise was not constructed long ago there would have been less of history to forget…”

Poetic justice would be served if it could be reported that the Long Valley Dam has made possible the rebirth of Owens Valley—that the farmers have returned to the land and are pushing back the sagebrush with orchards and green fields. It is tempting to declare that the one million dollars Fred Eaton had demanded for his reservoir site would have been cheap compared to the millions paid for Owens property.

But the relentless growth of Los Angeles has blasted the chances of any such conclusion. To provide more water for the mushrooming city, the aqueduct was extended farther north to Mono County and although the total water supply is far more than even Eaton and Mulholland first visualized, the city’s insatiable thirst has likewise grown. There is still insufficient water for a guaranteed supply to Owens Valley farms. What little agriculture is attempted depends upon short-term leases that permit the city to withhold the water at any time. Though early construction of the Long Valley reservoir might have averted a water war, Owens Valley would eventually have been sacrificed anyway.

Today the valley is sustained by the stock-grazing economy it knew before the farmers dug their canals— and by a growing tourist trade, for eastern California has become a year-round playground for the very people who once were its worst enemies. Because of Owens Valley water, Los Angeles grew to the two million population promised by Mulholland. Now the valley’s contribution to the city’s growth is coming back in the form of tourist dollars. Angelenos, once afraid to identify themselves in the valley, are welcomed as paying customers. Supported by this commerce, Owens Valley today boasts more permanent residents than it did before it came under the shadow of Metropolis. But it is no longer the home of frontier farmers breathing the exhilarating air of self-reliance. It is a tributary province to the city it helped to build.


Watch the video: Driver in custody after leading pursuit with pit bull hanging out window in San Fernando Valley (July 2022).


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