By Deb Murphy
If anyone ever wondered why members of Inyo County’s Tribal communities express intense feelings on Owens Valley water issues, that question was answered at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting when representatives from the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley presented their historical perspective.
The presentation was introduced by District 4 Supervisor Mark Tillemans.
“Water means life for more than just us. It’s about the environment we live in. We offer prayers of gratitude for what we take and we leave something behind,” explained Alan Bacock following an invocation by Charlotte Bacock. “All life is connected. We need each other to survive and thrive.”
Bacock told the history of the Big Pine Tribe, how members created an extensive ditch system to move water through the valley to raise the water table, then lived off the bounty of the land. All that changed in the 1860s and the introduction of a different “world view.” “The idea of individual rights—it’s mine, I own it—was foreign to the tribes. The water and the land belonged to everybody, it was like air,” he said.
Nearly a thousand members of the Big Pine Tribe were marched to Fort Tejon, some were able to move back to the valley but surface water management by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power changed the landscape.
Paul Huette, whose job is to provide irrigation water on the reservation, put the 20,000 acre-feet of water pumped in the Big Pine well fields in perspective. “That’s 6.5 billion gallons,” he said. “We need groundwater. The trees are reaching for something that’s not there.”
He spoke of not being allowed to clear the pipe that delivered water to the reservation until an agreement with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was signed. “My job is to get people their water,” he said. “It hurts me when I can’t.”
Bacock had some suggestions including a hydrological assessment on the water table in the valley, more timely water flow data, including LADWP lands in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (it is exempt as an adjudicated water basin), develop a water balance in Big Pine, look at the value of the Fish Springs Fish Hatchery, the recipient of most of Big Pine’s 20,000 pumped acre-feet, to Inyo County.
Following a number of local supporters, three Los Angeles residents identified themselves as part of the problem. “Los Angeles needs to live within its means,” they said. When asked by Supervisor Matt Kingsley if they’d taken that message to the Los Angeles City Council or LADWP’s Commissioners, the response was “they don’t listen.”
The next speaker was Lauren Bon, the woman behind the Metabolic Studio in Lone Pine and the 100 Mule March in the summer of 2013. “We’re trying to use artistic expression to create a paradigm shift,” she said, describing her “Bend the River” project that would contribute 100 acre-feet of her Los Angeles River water rights to the city if LADWP would leave the same amount in the Owens Valley. “We’ll give you the gift of water,” she said. “We need to start looking at water as a resource, not a commodity.”
All five Supervisors agreed that the County and the Tribe’s goals were aligned. “All we can do is try,” said Supervisor Rick Pucci. “We’re going in the same direction.”