Club urges conservation easements in Owens Valley
For nearly 100 years the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has owned 320,000 acres in Eastern Sierra and the Owens Valley. These lands range from Mono Lake to Owens Dry Lake and contain over 20,000 acres of wetlands, 565 miles of year-round rivers and streams, and over 50 miles of lake shoreline including all of Crowley Lake. While ownership by the LADWP may have been a major factor in preserving the rural character and beauty of the valley, on other issues the LADWP can be faulted.
Over the years, LADWP has over pumped ground water, dried up natural springs, and let the native trees die. It has dewatered the lower 60 miles of the Owens River. Only now and under extraordinary government pressure is it addressing the problem of Owens Dry Lake being the worst single source of particulate dust in the United States. It has taken lengthy and costly litigation to force LADWP to address these problems.
The question for those who live in the valley and those who visit it is, How can the rural character, the unique small town landscape, and the wonderful open space be preserved? The answer from LADWP is: 'Trust us.' The answer of environmentalists and an increasing number of citizens on all sides is: 'Put a conservation easement on the land.'
Conservation easements are an established legal tool to do a job. In this case, the state of California with parks and water bond money would: 1) purchase and retire the commercial and residential development rights on Eastern Sierra and Owens Valley lands owned by Los Angeles; and 2) guarantee on these lands existing public recreational access, including access to world-class trout fishing.
The LADWP would still manage its lands. Water rights would not be affected. A working landscape of ranching and recreation would continue. Property taxes and income to the counties of Inyo and Mono would not change.
The potential risks of 'Trust us' are huge. The risks are exploitation. Recently LADWP opened some of its Eastern Sierra lands for mineral exploration. Development could come in the kind of mansionization that is spreading in Mammoth and Mono County. LADWP could sell single trophy home sites on 40- to 160-acre parcels, which would have minimal impact on water, but maximum impact on citizen access rights (and profits). For instance, LADWP once tried to sell off conservation lands in the Santa Monica Mountains to generate revenue.
The lead opponent of the conservation easement plan is LADWP commissioner Dominick Rubalcava. He does not want to foreclose on the future potential to develop LADWP lands and is on record supporting limited development of these lands. He has used scare tactics suggesting that a conservation easement would place new constraints on ranching, recreation access, and water rights. These are untrue.
At a recent meeting between Los Angeles mayor James Hahn and conservationists in the Owens Valley, Commissioner Rubalcava told Mayor Hahn that 100 percent of the valley is open to the public. Actually, it turns out there are secret LADWP lease agreements with ranchers in which they can close 25 percent of their leases to the public and have their own private fishing and hunting preserves on tens of thousands of acres of city-owned land.
Mayor Hahn has waffled all over the place. In the space of a few weeks he has chastised city council members for exploring with the state the idea of a conservation easement. Two weeks later he announced that he personally had been working on it for a year and the conservation easement was really his idea. Then he said maybe it should be a conservancy and not an easement. Then he announced he was not so sure about a conservancy. He has now said he has no preferred plan, but wants it to be based on Eastern Sierra citizen input.
The conservation easement proposal has strong champions in Los Angeles council member Tony Cardenas and council president Alex Padilla. They would like to see a major portion of the $35 million the state would pay to Los Angles for a conservation easement in turn be used by the city to fund the city's Adventure Camping Programs for underserved youth. The state bond funds used to pay for the conservation easement would be doing double duty.
If Mayor Hahn is sincere in wanting to permanently protect the valley, he should shun Commissioner Rubalcava's proposal to rely only the LADWP commission's commitment to protect the valley. The next commission or even the present commission could reverse that decision.
Local support for a conservation easement in the Eastern Sierra has been mixed in Inyo County and nearly unanimous in favor in Mono County. Although it seems wrong to leave millions of Angelenos out of the decision, if Mayor Hahn wants to proceed only with local support in the Eastern Sierra, he should immediately support a conservation easement for Mono County where the board of supervisors, Mammoth Town Council and the vast majority of the residents support a conservation easement to protect LADWP lands in perpetuity.
The city and the LADWP have always said they want to preserve their water rights in perpetuity. So why not preserve the watershed in perpetuity? The protection provided by a conservation easement is win-win. The LADWP still manages its water and its land; the local citizens still manage their lives and communities, and live in an extraordinarily beautiful place. Visitors would still support the local economy as they access world-class beauty and recreation, and all is protected in perpetuity.
Elden Hughes is a former chair of Angeles Chapter and currently the chair of the Sierra Club's California/Nevada Desert Committee.