A century after Los Angeles stealthily bought up rural land 200 miles north to secure valuable water rights, officials in the Owens Valley are fighting back.
Inyo County has launched eminent domain proceedings in an effort to take property acquired by Los Angeles in the early 1900s, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday.
The dispute stems from a scheme in which agents from the big city quietly purchased land while posing as ranchers and farmers. The saga became a key part of California history and the subject of the 1974 film "Chinatown." Los Angeles went on to drain the lush valley, taking the water via a great aqueduct to fuel the metropolis' explosive growth, forever changing development in Southern California.
It's the first time Inyo County has used eminent domain against the LA Department of Water and Power, which owns 25 percent of the Owens Valley floor, the newspaper reported.
"We're using a hammer the DWP has never seen before in Owens Valley," Inyo County Supervisor Rick Pucci told the Times. "Our goal is the future health and safety of our communities."
Previous battles with the DWP focused on the environmental and economic damage caused by the pumping of local water supplies. But with its new strategy, 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.
A county appraisal concluded a fair market value for the total 200 acres of $522,000, county officials said. On Monday, the DWP declined that offer, saying it had yet to complete its own appraisals.
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Some officials are already raising the possibility of mounting crowd-sourcing campaigns to fund additional acquisitions of DWP land for public benefit.
The latest county 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 LA opened the aqueduct a century ago that drained Owens Lake.
Snowmelt in the eastern Sierra runs off and into the aqueduct, traveling hundreds of miles to Los Angeles.
Inyo County officials see their effort to take back DWP land as an important step in restoring local control. That worries DWP officials, who acknowledged they were caught off guard by the action.
"This is brand new. It could be a slippery slope and where it would lead us I don't know," Marty Adams, chief operating officer at the agency, said. "The county also wants the water rights on certain properties, which could have a cascading effect. We're very concerned about that."
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 dust bowl.