Watch Desert Wars September 25, 2006 at 8 pm on KUED Channel 7
Mike Prather: This is an area of the Owen's Valley called Pine Springs. It's an area that at one time in the 1960's was an area of green lushness—water near the surface supporting acres and acres of bunch grasses and vegetation. In an effort to fill the second Los Angeles aqueduct in 1970, there was massive ground water pumping in this area and other areas in the Owens Valley that resulted in the water tables dropping and the loss of vegetation, the invasion of weeds, the creation of a large regional dust problem in the valley. An example of the some of the bunch grasses that have been destroyed is right below me here. This is a bunch grass called alkali sacaton. It is wide-spread in the Great Basin. This would normally be up to the belly of a horse with large plumes, and solid masses of bunch grasses, which supported lots of wildlife and kept the dust down. Most of these have died since 1970 when the pumps came on. We have bare ground in between and we can tell by the dark soils that we had a lot of organics here. We can tell the pictures from the past by analyzing the soil as well as the skeletons of the dead plants. We have the invasion of weeds, like Russian thistle, which is not a fair trade. It is something to be avoided anywhere else in the world where it can be. Below me here is a bunch grass. This is a skeleton of a bunch grass called alkali sacaton. You can see that it's gone and there is bare ground amongst the skeletons in the invasion of Russian thistle—a real ecological tragedy—violence to a natural world.
Interviewer: What advice do you have for the ranchers in Snake Valley and White Pine and the residents there?
Mike Prather: The advice I would have for anyone living in rural Nevada where the Southern Nevada Water Authority has filed for water, is to resist it in every possible way—to deal with it in terms of simple justice and fairness, that you cannot take away water from one area--something that is worth something in terms of beauty, life, economic vitality and future options, and take that away. The water may belong to everyone in the state in Nevada that is under White Pine County and elsewhere but it most affects the people that live there and I think we need to fight it in terms of fighting environmental impact statements, fight it legally, fight it in the state house in Carson City, try to bring it to life within in the city of Las Vegas, to what is happening and how a small ground, an underdog (you know an underdog is something in America—we fight for underdogs) we should not allow people to just run roughshod over rural areas in Nevada—people like from Las Vegas without them knowing what they've done. If after seeing all of the facts, and the things that are going to happen if they choose to do it, then that can't be helped. They need to be educated and shamed if necessary.
Interviewer: Mike what are we seeing in the aqueduct? Where does the water come from and where is it going?
Mike Prather: By me is the Los Angeles aqueduct that is carrying the water 230 miles down to the city of Los Angeles. The portion that is behind and under me is a part that was actually dug. It's a man-made canal that was dug. Upstream it diverts the Owens River, the entire volume of the Owens River into this dug ditch then onto Los Angeles. So in our valley we lost about 62 miles of the lower Owens River--it dried up and then the lake also. This carries pumped water as well as surface water. With surface water the great volume is the snow melt every May and June.
Interviewer: Tell me who owns this water?
Mike Prather: In the state of California water is owned by the property owner. In other words, in our valley here, where most of the entire valley (240,000 acres is owned by the city of Los Angeles), they own the water underneath it, so they can pump that water. In our case they can also export that water and there is virtually no limit unless some environmental damage is going to occur where we do have legal tools, like the California Environmental Quality Act that we can use here. In Nevada the case is different where there is a state water engineer that determines how the water will be used. These large projects, I guess the water is held in trust by the state of Nevada and this single person appointed by the governor makes the decision on how projects are going to be put together and whether they're going to go forward or not.
Interviewer: How were the water rights in Owens Valley acquired?
Mike Prather: Well the city of Los Angeles around 1905 was faced with a shortfall of water. They had a booming population. They had a lot of boosters in terms of real estate and economic industry down there even then still today, and they were looking around for where they could get more water and they found the Owens Valley. So they began to buy ranches that were along streams, along the river, and places that were along the canals--eventually all of the canal companies, and slowly bought out land. A lot of it before the first aqueduct was completed in 1913. Since they held the rights to that land they also owned the water and the rights underneath that land, and they can pump it or divert it at will.
What you're hearing and seeing here is the sound of money. This water makes land have value. There is a lot of money in the city of Los Angeles and that value is magnified if there is water added. This is a deep aquifer monitoring well. It goes down approximately three to five hundred feet. It's sealed in certain sections and it has perforations in others so it can take water at different depths. When pumps come on, water levels can be measured here, the behavior of the water in a sense. Computer models can be made so you can try to understand what happens underground when these pumps come on.
Interview: Tell us what we're seeing behind us with the Owens River, sometimes it's dry, but not necessarily today, and what did it look like originally?
Mike Prather: Well I'm standing at the bottom of the lower Owens River. In the old days before the first diversion for the Los Angeles aqueduct, this river would flow bank to bank and during the snow run-off in May and June would spill over the banks and really recharge not only the ground water but also spread the lush vegetation this valley had.
Interviewer: Talk about taking water from the Owens River to Los Angeles, and the ramifications of what that dream has been.
Mike Prather: Really Mulholland always had a great commitment to this city of Los Angeles. He wanted the city to grow and fulfill it's destiny, and to do that it needed to have water and if the water was up here in the Owens Valley and if they could get it to Los Angeles, then that's where it should go. It should be the greatest good for the greatest number. The problem with that is it often tramples on the minority. In the United States that's always the balance in democracy. How do you not just go roughshod over the rural people? I think in a modern day, where we've learned so much from mistakes of the past especially with the Owens Valley is that all cities need to live within their means. We do that as families, living within our means, and if water is a limiting factor, then they need to deal with that. If they need to use less, or more efficiently or whatever, use it over again, that's what they need to do. They shouldn't just be able to go out into the rural areas where there are fewer people, and take away their current situation and their future.
Interviewer: That's one of the arguments that we've heard, certainly in Las Vegas, is that the huge sacrifice of the rural for the many to benefit from the economy, talk about that.
Mike Prather: I think the rural versus the urban conflict, where the majority feels that the sacrifice should be made by the few, I don't think that's really a valid argument, because they're really not arguing about jobs and economy for the current people in this city. They're dealing with boosters and speculators. They're dealing with people that want to increase the land base in those cities and that's a cancer. There is simply no end to that. There is no sign that any kind of real planning that has teeth takes place--that basically if enough money can come in the door for a new development, sometimes entirely new cities, then that's what they're boosting. It's the same as it's always been, especially back in the '20s in the city of Los Angeles. That kind of boom is taking place right now in Las Vegas and what Los Angeles had in the teens, the '20s and the '30s. Los Angeles, the city proper, is built out now. But Las Vegas can go in all directions. They are to the point where they can influence federal land ownership—the transfer of land to the city so they can just have more and more growth. They're not talking about growth for the current people. They're talking about more and more people coming in. Cities need to live within their means. They need to work on densities, control traffic, cleaner air and more quality of life issues.