Extensive open space is one of the most striking features of Owens Valley. Unobstructed views of the Sierra Nevada escarpment and the White/Inyo Mountains from the valley floor enhance the quality of life for residents and delight tourists from all over the world. The scenery helps drive the county’s recreation-based economy.
Historically, DWP has taken credit for preserving this open space. Former LA Water and Power Commissioner and water activist Dorothy Green wrote, “Most residents of these Eastern Sierra communities are grateful to DWP for purchasing the land in the region. There is very little development and no billboards on Highway 395” (Managing Water, UC Press, pg 34) According to DWP, “The Owens Valley remains one of the last areas in California that is virtually untouched by pollution and development precisely because of the LADWP’s excellent land stewardship.” Whether preventing development alone constitutes “excellent land stewardship” is debatable, but DWP equates the two. In fact, DWP has expanded open space by systematically destroying houses and ranch buildings on property it has acquired up and down the valley.
Preservation of open space is the basis of DWP’s defense of its entire Owens Valley enterprise. While the environmental devastation of its de-watering of the valley is well-documented, DWP has great success in the court of public opinion by frightening people over what would happen if it left the valley. “If it weren’t for DWP this place would look like [name an ugly suburban area]” is the most frequently heard rationalization among Owens Valley residents for acquiescence to DWP.
The zenith of DWP’s efforts to protect open space came in 2004. DWP proposed to protect its non-urban land by establishing conservation easements on it. Local ranchers and political leaders were caught by surprise, opposed the proposal, and it was never adopted.
Given the great political value of its open space preservation, it was surprising to see how easily DWP reversed its policy. As recently as 2006 both the DWP general manager and a member of the Board of Water and Power Commissioners assured Owens Valley residents that DWP had no interest in developing its lands in the valley. In 2013, with a new mayor and new DWP director, protection of open space was forgotten as DWP proposed constructing a two-square mile industrial-scale solar energy facility (the Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch aka SOVSR) in one of the most historic and scenic parts of the valley. So much for preventing development and “excellent land stewardship!”
To buy Inyo County’s support, DWP and Inyo staff agreed on a “term sheet” in which Inyo County would be paid $4,000,000.00 by DWP provided it agreed not to challenge the project’s EIR. Inyo Supervisors were ready to accept this, but were surprised by overwhelming opposition among their constituents.
While resistance to DWP’s ongoing desertification of the valley is often ineffectual, this threat to open space generated powerful and widespread opposition not seen in the valley in decades. OVC helped lead this fight. Working in conjunction with the Manzanar Committee – a political force in Los Angeles — and local tribes, we were able to persuade DWP to postpone further consideration until the mid 2020’s.
According to the Inyo County Planning Department, Owens Valley has the potential to be the “Saudi Arabia of solar energy.” DWP is not the only utility to recognize this. While fighting off DWP’s proposal, OVC successfully opposed another proposed solar photo-voltaic project on private property in the middle of the valley close to the proposed SOVSR site.
At this point, the only protection for open space on DWP land is DWP’s Owens Valley Land Management Plan (LMP). This was a mitigation measure in the 1997 MOU to the 1991 LTWA/EIR. The LMP “will provide for the continuation of sustainable uses (including recreation, livestock grazing, agriculture, and other activities) will promote biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem, and will consider the enhancement of Threatened and Endangered Species habitats.” OVC is a party to the MOU and will continue to insist that the goals of the LMP be honored.
As of 2015 the Inyo County Planning Department seems to be the greatest threat to open space. In the name of protecting the valley from inappropriate development, the Planning Department continues to propose modifications to the Inyo County General Plan which would open up large parts of Owens Valley to industrial-scale solar projects.