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Attorney General Lockyer Files Suit to Force Los Angeles to Restore Lower Owens River Stretch
(INDEPENDENCE) – Attorney General Bill Lockyer today filed a lawsuit to force the City of Los Angeles to restore a 60-mile stretch of the Lower Owens River, a project required under the 1997 settlement of a legal action that established the city's groundwater pumping in Inyo County violated state law and caused substantial environmental damage to the Owens Valley.
"This project will provide long-needed restoration of habitats, wildlife and recreation in the Owens Valley," said Lockyer. "It's what the community wants. It's what the city promised. We're asking the court to make sure it happens."
The complaint filed today is the latest chapter in a 33-year litigation saga. The full story, however, dates back to 1913, and the completion of the first aqueduct to transport water from Inyo County to Los Angeles. That action essentially dammed part of the Owens River, which ultimately dried up Owens Lake.
In 1970, the city and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) finished a second aqueduct and filled it partly by increasing groundwater pumping in Inyo County. The county filed a lawsuit alleging the city and LADWP violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Specifically, the complaint alleged the two public entities failed to assess the environmental effects of the increased groundwater pumping and adopt measures to mitigate any harmful effects. The Third District Court of Appeal in 1973 upheld the challenge and issued an injunction that limited the groundwater pumping.
Ultimately, in 1991, the city and LADWP approved an environmental impact report (EIR), along with mitigation measures that included the Lower Owens River Project (LORP). They then asked the court of appeal to dismiss the litigation.
But the State Lands Commission and Department of Fish and Game – represented by the Attorney General – as well as the Owens Valley Committee and the Sierra Club, objected. They wanted the city and LADWP held to an unequivocal commitment to implement the LORP. The city and LADWP made that commitment in the 1997 settlement and agreed to meet specific deadlines for implementing the LORP and smaller mitigation measures. Six years later, none of the deadlines have been met, including the June 13, 2003 date for commencing flows in the Lower Owens River.
"Respondents have repeatedly failed to meet deadlines for the LORP," alleges Lockyer's complaint, filed on behalf of the State Lands Commission and Department of Fish and Game. "Respondents have neglected the LORP, unreasonably delayed the LORP, failed to make timely decisions concerning the LORP and its design, and failed to give the LORP sufficient priority ..."
The complaint asks the court to order the city and LADWP to take all necessary steps to implement the LORP, and to provide the court interim progress reports. Additionally, the complaint states, the court should impose further restrictions on the groundwater pumping if it deems such limitations necessary to force the city and LADWP to implement the LORP.
In adopting the EIR in 1991, the city and LADWP said the LORP would help offset the damage caused by the increased groundwater pumping to springs, marsh habitat, vegetation and wildlife in the Owens Valley. The LORP will help restore habitats for fish, and cottonwood and willow trees, and provide resulting benefits for native fish species and birds. The project also will aid Delta wetlands, and enhance recreational activities, including fishing.