Letter to the Editor
Submitted by Daniel Pritchett
British voters recently surprised the world by voting in a non-binding referendum to exit the European Union (Brexit). Among other things, Brexit supporters argued the European Union threatened British sovereignty and self-determination. Hmmm… What possible relevance could arguments about self-determination have to residents of a valley controlled by a city 250 miles away, residents who cannot vote in the elections which control their valley’s fate?!
Let us have LAxit: a non-binding referendum asking Los Angeles to phase out its dependence on Owens Valley water, protect open space, and leave. It is time we go on record saying, “Thank you for preventing Owens Valley from turning into Lancaster, now please go home”.
Unfortunately, a LAxit referendum, if held today, would probably not succeed. If you doubt this, consider the Bishop Creek Water Association (BCWA). This is an organization of water rights holders whose members recently lost tens of thousands of dollars due to DWP’s changed management of Bishop Creek, and yet whose members consistently vote DWP supporters and former employees to their board of directors. Were a referendum held today, LAxit opponents, like directors of the BCWA, would simply point to all the undeveloped DWP land and say, “If it weren’t for DWP this valley would look like” [fill in any ugly suburban sprawled area] and the referendum would fail. This assertion typically ends any discussion of alternative futures for the valley.
And yet, it shouldn’t.
It is one thing to observe (correctly) DWP has prevented rampant development in the past. It is quite another to suggest DWP’s colonial rule is the only possible way such development can be prevented in the future. In fact, there are numerous ways open space might be protected after a DWP departure. Los Angeles mayor Riordan himself proposed one (with DWP support) several years ago: conservation easements. Others would be: 1) return land to Owens Valley tribes, the valley’s original stewards; 2) turn land over to the National Park Service, to make the valley a historic park preserving traditional land uses; 3) joint management, as with the Maidu Summit Consortium in Humbug Valley (Plumas County) or Canyon de Chelly National Park.
We couldn’t compel Los Angeles to choose any particular method for disposing of its holdings, but widespread development would be an unlikely outcome. That is because open space is the single positive legacy the city can point to after a century of exploitation. Open space allows DWP employees and apologists to sleep at night, by sustaining their delusion that, “Los Angeles is the savior of the valley.” Los Angeles real estate interests are powerful, but I doubt if an administration that decided to phase out the city’s dependence on our water, (enabling it to dispose of its Owens Valley land) would destroy the one beneficial result of the city’s management.
Apart from the false notion that a DWP departure would doom the valley to uncontrolled development, the biggest obstacle to a LAxit referendum is simply ignorance. When I moved here I knew an injustice had occurred in the past, but I thought the damage was done and some sort of equilibrium had been reached. This view is common. The valley’s beauty is so overwhelming the last thing people want is to discover old wounds festering and environmental conditions worsening.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what I did discover: the equilibrium is illusory, and environmental degradation and political injustice continue. The valley is being systematically drained by Los Angeles. The Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) is a band-aid applied to a hemorrhage. However, relatively few residents force themselves to confront this. There are more enjoyable things to do than reading bad news buried in opaque reports by DWP and the Inyo County Water Department. Most disturbing is that the LTWA’s numerous failures distract people from recognizing the fundamental problem: colonial rule.
For these reasons I suggest county supervisors call a series of public meetings to prepare for a LAxit referendum. The objectives would be to: 1) raise awareness of the ongoing environmental degradation and continuing political injustice of our colonial status; and 2) foster discussion and solicit suggestions regarding a post-DWP future. How might our quality of life be preserved without DWP as a colonial power? There would probably be a great range of suggestions and disagreements, and a skilled facilitator would be needed to keep discussion focused. However, I think there would be widespread agreement on the need to protect existing open space, and I suspect the need to address tribal water/ land claims would also be widely acknowledged.
I admit the idea of more public meetings (even with a good facilitator) makes me want to run screaming in the other direction. And yet, the alternative, of silent acquiescence to the status quo, is worse. We, who have the privilege of living in this magnificent valley, have a responsibility to try to take care of it.
We may lack legal grounds to force DWP to leave, but that doesn’t prevent us from bearing witness to the evil being done. Silence implies consent.
Apart from the ethical statement a LAxit referendum would make, it would have real political value. Mayor Garcetti’s own statements and numbers reveal it is entirely possible for Los Angeles to phase out its dependence on our water, and Owens Valley does have friends in Los Angeles. However, we must take the first step and give our friends, through LAxit, something to work with. San Francisco residents seriously discuss draining Hetch Hetchy Reservoir; surely it is time for us to discuss filling Owens Lake! A LAxit vote would be a step toward re-hydrating the valley and righting a century-old wrong./
When Supervisors convene the first LAxit meeting I’ll be there, and hope everyone who reads this will be, too!