L.A. took their water and land a century ago. Now the Owens Valley is fighting back

century ago, agents from Los Angeles converged on the Owens Valley on a secret mission.

They figured out who owned water rights in the lush valley and began quietly purchasing land, posing as ranchers and farmers.

Soon, residents of the Eastern Sierra realized much of the water rights were now owned by Los Angeles interests. L.A. proceeded to drain the valley, taking the water via a great aqueduct to fuel the metropolis’ explosive growth.

This scheme became an essential piece of California history and the subject of the classic 1974 film “Chinatown.” In the Owens Valley, it is still known as the original sin that sparked decades of hatred for Los Angeles as the valley dried up and ranchers and farmers struggled to make a living.

But now, the Owens Valley is trying to rectify this dark moment in its history.

Officials have launched eminent domain proceedings in an effort to take property acquired by Los Angeles in the early 1900s.

Owens Valley wants to reclaim its history

It is the first time Inyo County has used eminent domain rules against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which owns 25% of the Owens Valley floor, officials said Wednesday.

Unlike previous battles with the DWP that focused on the environmental and economic damage caused by L.A.'s pumping of local water supplies, the county seeks to pay fair market value for property and water rights needed for landfills, parks, commerce and ranchlands along a 112-mile stretch of Highway 395 east of the Sierra Nevada.

“We’re using a hammer the DWP has never seen before in Owens Valley,” Inyo County Supervisor Rick Pucci said. “Our goal is the future health and safety of our communities.”

The move comes after years of efforts by Los Angeles to make amends for taking the region’s land and water. In 2013, for instance, the city agreed to fast-track measures to control toxic dust storms that have blown across the eastern Sierra Nevada since L.A. opened the aqueduct a century ago that drained Owens Lake.

As a gesture of conciliation, the city a year ago erected a $4.6-million monument of granite and sculpted earth that now rises from a dry bed of Owens Lake. It features a public plaza with curved granite walls inspired by the wing shapes of shorebirds. Sculptures of earth and rock have been made to resemble whitecaps like those that graced the lake’s surface before it was transformed into a noxious dust bowl.

learn more

Chris Alexakiswater, L.A.