Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A New Look at Owens Lake

Massive diversions of water in northern California have attained the status of “best practice” in water management. This practice runs contrary to sustainability as an underlying principle of water allocations. Water politics in this state is focused in a state legislature that is not reflective of the needs of users. Looking at the ecological changes around Owens Lake may not be as important as looking at the ramifications of the diversion of Owens Lake to Los Angeles. The series of articles at the website are updates of the current status on the ecosystems surrounding Owens Lake and the changing relation between urban and rural ecosystems.

Not mentioned in this narrative (Wyoming is in Los Angeles) is the battle waged by agricultural and ranching users in the Owens Valley region that reached the level of armed conflict. Unless a new model, based on adaptive governance and regional water planning, is adopted throughout the state of California, the political influences of southern users will continue to have their way.

States, such as Texas, have demonstrated the effectiveness of regional water plans and have increased the ability of local users to construct plans based on regional supplies. The issue is how can we establish processes that protect the the needs and concerns of local users, address the hydrological and environmental ramifications of decisions when others are free to come in and open the spigot for others. At what point do decisions that rob one region of the water resource for the benefit of others reach the level of being arbitrary and capricious? Why are voters throughout the state empowered to make the decisions that will not impact on their lives?

Underlying the questions is how we try to learn the lessons from the Owens Valley experience. It’s all very good for us to aesthetically gaze on the remarkable changes in Owens Lake ecosystem. It’s another thing to incorporate the reasonable concerns of users who are robbed of their needed resource as a vital component before decisions concerning diversions are made.

rholmes says:
April 27, 2010 at 9:06 amThanks for the comment, Martin.

The last thing we would want to do is merely “aesthetically gaze” on Owens Lake! Though I won’t deny that mammoth has a bit of fascination with weird and broken ecologies, our fascination has as much to do with the histories, functions, and futures of those ecologies as it does to do with their aesthetic properties.

It is quite true that this post skipped over the Water Wars and the ethical ramifications of the diversion of water which collects in the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, but it should be noted that a discussion of both the history of conflict over water rights in Owens Valley and of the contentious future of southern California’s demands for water is part of the text which we are reading, so the issue has by no means escaped our notice.

You raise a very interesting and difficult question, which is how best to balance the water needs of a distant majority with the obvious economic and environmental water interests of the localities that they obtain their water from.

I’m curious what your proscription for resolving that tension would be — it seems to me that you feel the decision-making process is rigged in a way that disadvantages the Owens Valley (which, historically, is obviously accurate), but what does a more just allocation look like to you?

I’m not familiar with Texan regional water plans, but I’d be quite curious to learn more, particularly if those plans do demonstrate a more equitable resolution of this tension. Can you point us towards a source that discusses them?

Martin Zehr says:
April 27, 2010 at 10:35 amThank you for your response.

As a participant in the Middle Rio Grande regional planning process, I spent close to ten years working in a model of ecological democracy in the Albuquerque-Rio Rancho region of NM. I would point you to the website of the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly as a specific model in which I was engaged. The website is: The plan is accessible on the Home page.

My reference to the Texas plan is a result of the frequent news articles that have appeared in regards to the updates that are ongoing in Texas. Also, as good as the process was in the Middle Rio Grande, it failed in the implementation stage because municipalities failed to utilize its recommendations and overview. Despite the fact that governmental entities, irrigator associations, county commissions and flood control agencies signed off on the plan before it was submitted to the Interstate Stream Commission, the Bernalillo County Commission was the only entity to reference the plan in its water conservation ordinance.

As a Green urban user, I spent much time on the Urban Users and Economic Development Advocates’ committee that was represented on Action Committee. As a member of that committee, I represented Green [Party] urban users and sought to integrate quality of life issues with the plan’s recommendations and preferred scenario.

The reason for this is a political issue. As users in California know, those making the decisions are not those impacted the most by them. The planning process in California is top-down and has little real authority in regards to establishing regional water budgets or Public Welfare statements. Its advisory character is directed towards a state plan that remains weak and undirected in regards to regional users, the science and the environment. Furthermore, the state legislature continues to undermine regional planning through inter-regional diversions to both urban and rural users in southern California. Likewise, the oveerlapping jurisdictions and conflicting agencies continue to make water management and administration a Gordian knot if we were to establish adaptive governance and regional planning as the underlying principles.

Martin Zehr says:
April 27, 2010 at 2:18 pm“if we were to establish adaptive governance and regional planning as the underlying principles.”

should read “UNTIL we slice through it by establishing adaptive governance and regional planning…”

The planning template provided to the 16 planning regions in NM by the Interstate Stream Commission included a stipulation for regions to provide a plan that was not dependent on transfers from other regions in order to be balanced.
The goals of the MRG plan included a stipulation to “balance growth with renewable supplies” that was opposed by the WRB of the Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments thereby making an administrative body of the local municipalities a significant obstacle in the implementation of the regional plan. (see section 1.3.3 of the plan )

rholmes says:
April 28, 2010 at 9:51 amThanks, Martin. We appreciate you taking the time to relay your experiences and providing us with a first-hand account of the politics of hydrology, attesting to the importance of good, responsive governance and transparent planning processes (through what sounds like their unfortunate absence).

From the executive summary, it looks like the Middle Rio Grande plan was a very reasonable document.

These are exactly the sorts of issues which architects and landscape architects need to be able to negotiate successfully and publicly (and ethically!), if we’re going to contribute to the planning, design, and re-design of large-scale infrastructures.


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