Los Angeles: The Thirstiest County in the West

Roman Polanski’s classic 1974 film, “Chinatown,” which laid out a fictional account of California’s north-south water wars, turned out to be quite prescient. This week on Sea Change Radio, we welcome Katie Licari of Afro LA, who breaks down the ongoing tale of Los Angeles water and the impact this never-ending thirst has had on two very rural regions of California – Inyo and Mono Counties. We learn about the colonialist history of LA water rights and look at the monopolistic grip the LA Department of Water & Power holds over these counties.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Katie Licari (KL) | 00:20 – DWP has changed the rules where you can’t transfer the leases more than once. If Mike Allen wanted to sell his business, the next person would have to walk away and bulldoze that business to the ground, without any chance of recouping their cost.

Narrator | 00:40 – Roman Polanski’s classic 1974 film Chinatown, which laid out a fictional account of California’s North South Water Wars, turned out to be quite prescient this week on Sea Change Radio. We welcome Katie Licari of Afro LA, who breaks down the ongoing tale of Los Angeles Water and the impact this never-ending thirst has had on two very rural regions of California Inyo and mono counties. We learn about the colonialist history of LA water rights and look at the monopolistic grip, the LA Department of Water and power holds over these counties. I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Katie Licari. Katie is a reporter for Afro LA. Katie, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Katie Licari (KL) | 01:47 – Hello. Happy to be here.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:49 – So you are in the midst of writing a multi-piece series for Afro LA, which is being syndicated on other platforms as well, like The Guardian about Los Angeles’s “local” water politics, which are occurring around 300 miles away from Los Angeles. Why don’t you explain the situation that exists in Inyo County and then what drew you to this project?

Katie Licari (KL) | 02:18 – I would love to. So essentially, Los Angeles gets its water from a handful of sources. They get their water from Metropolitan Water District,  which provides water from the Colorado River and the state water project up north. And then, uh, they all, and most of Southern California does get their water from metropolitan. That includes Orange County, Riverside County, San Diego County as well. But Los Angeles is very unique in that it also gets water from the Eastern Sierra, which is, up in Inyo and Mono County specifically. So water that falls to the west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you know, kind of by like Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, that area goes into the state water project, and then all of Southern California gets use of that. But anything that falls to the east of the Sierras becomes the property of Los Angeles. And how Los Angeles secured those water rights was in the early 19 hundreds. They bought 90% of the privately available land in Inyo county, and 30% about 30% of the land in Mono County.

Alex Wise (AW) | 03:30 – It took a lot of foresight, if you think about it, this is over a century ago, and Los Angeles was not like some huge metropolis. But this was a brainchild of Mulholland, is that right?

KL | 03:41 – Yes. This was a brainchild of Mulholland. A lot of Los Angeles boosters, including the o or sorry, the Chandler family from the famously known as owning my previous employer, the Los Angeles Times, helped boost the need for this aqueduct to compete with San Francisco, which was also looking for its own water source. They ended up damning up part of Yosemite National Park, the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir, in order to gain their water. But through these land deals, Los Angeles was able to beat San Francisco to the punch for water availability and was able to grow more rapidly as a result. 

AW | 04:22 – So I interrupted your chronology that you were laying out. Why don’t you go on, sorry. 

KL | 04:27 – So, effectively, these land holdings, you know, that they bought up in the early 19 hundreds have made them the de facto landlords for entire communities in the Eastern Sierra. And so in the past, there has been, you know, periods of great relationships with the city of Los Angeles and also, you know, really particularly awful relationships with the city of Los Angeles in regards to just land holdings. Uh, so in 2015, you know, during the last drought, the 2011 to 2016 drought, Los Angeles changed a lot of their lease terms, which have really ruined people’s economic livelihoods. And that was the first part of the investigation that we did. But also because they were not renewing leases, it was causing other problems for county infrastructure as well, which, uh, was released today on Tuesday, June 4th. 

AW | 05:26 – So the second part of my question, what drew you to covering this piece? You’re in the greater metropolitan Los Angeles area and you love drinking water, I assume. What are some of the other things that drew you to this as a journalist? 

KL | 05:41 – Okay. I am not a rural person. You know, that is not my lived experience. I grew up in, you know, southern California, in a suburban, you know, area. I like to describe it as one freeway exit from Disneyland <laugh>. But I do, I I got a tip. I was covering Covid in the Bay, in like, just greater California. And at the time, Inyo County had this massive outbreak of covid. It was the highest in California, and the fifth highest nationwide when you adjust for population. And so I went up to my editor, and this was at a few news organizations ago, and I said, there’s this count, like there’s this county in rural California, and they’re just exploding with COVID. And she was like, oh yeah, go, you know, go see what’s going on. And what I found was a story, a story that was a lack of rural resources. You know, what do you do if you can’t shut down because there isn’t enough Wi-Fi to fully shut down schools or, you know, there’s ranching and, you know, mining. You know, those aren’t things that you can do on Zoom. You know, what do you do if there are special, you know, there’s no specialists in your hospital and only four ICU beds that, you know, you can hold people with. So the story really became about rural access. And because I got that story right, I got a tip about this from somebody, and you know, a few people when I had been reporting the story ear, you know, early on, said, like, you know, we don’t really trust people from like this news media organization, but because you got this right, I’ll talk to you. 

AW | 07:36 – Now that you’ve laid out the reality of this odd ownership situation from a Los Angeles basically owning another county to a large degree, what’s the controversy here, essentially, Katie? 

KL | 07:51 – Yeah. So the controversy is that Los Angeles essentially has monopolistic power over their lessees. You can’t really go anywhere else if you own a business or even a backyard in the Owens Valley. Um, DWP does own a lot of people’s backyards as well, and they can dictate, you know, the lease or take away your lease, um, if, you know, if you don’t abide by, uh, the lease terms. And it’s not like you can just move because Los Angeles owns all of the land along the cities. So you really would have to move way out into the sticks. 

AW | 08:35 – Is that because the Department of Water and power in Los Angeles won’t extend additional leases to other people? Let’s say this Mike Allen that you profile in the first part of your series, he, he doesn’t own the land beneath him. So he is like, I can’t retire. I can’t sell my property. What am I supposed to do? So in this scenario that you’re explaining where he can’t move somewhere else, what is the monopolistic reality of A DWP in this situation? Spell for a Mike Allen. Why can’t he just get another property from DWP? 

KL | 09:09 – You know, all these leases, you know, they treat the leases kind of similarly in that, you know, if you have to, that the lease terms are like the same kind of onerous lease terms regardless of who you are but they made, they changed a lot of rules on lessees in the past 10 years. And that’s actually specifically why Mike Allen can’t retire. Um, in the past you could transfer leases kind of acted like mortgages where they would just transfer, and it wasn’t really that big of a deal. But around 10 years ago, uh, DWP decided that you couldn’t transfer leases anymore. And because of a different lease term, if, uh, you can’t like, sell your business or, you know, to surrender your lease, it would mean that you would have to bulldoze your business to the ground. And that is if, if you wanted to surrender your lease, and that’s the choice that Mike Allen, uh, you know, is facing. If he can’t sell his business and the reason he can’t sell his business is because his lease, you know, will not transfer a second time. This might be a little complicated, but I think the best way to to explain this is, uh, if you were trying to sell your business to somebody else, you would own, uh, you know, all your inventory and everything. And in the past, you know, you would just come to a, a set amount of money for the inventory and the value of, you know, whatever goodwill business that you had, your clients and whatnot. And the lease would just try transfer essentially automatically, you know, with a credit check in a few days. Now, DWP has changed the rules where you can’t transfer the leases more than once. So because Mike Allen, if Mike Allen wanted to sell his business, the next person would have to walk away and bulldoze that business to the ground, uh, without any chance of recouping their cost.

(Music Break) | 11:41

AW | 12:47 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Katie Licari. She’s a reporter for Afro LA. So Katie, when we’re talking about this Inyo County relationship with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, DWP, you mentioned how DWP changed its rules around a decade ago. How were things before that? What was the situation if, if you owned a piece of property 20, 30 years ago? Is it just these, this recent change from the last decade? Or has this been a difficult place to be a business owner for the last a hundred years? 

KL | 13:25 – Yeah, so these properties were bought up in the 1920s, uh, to prevent economic collapse in the valley. And it was seen as a good thing at the time. And the business owners with the ability to transfer leases, kind of similar to how you would transfer a deed to a property or a house. There were still some issues, but they were far, far less. Um, one, uh, county supervisor during a public meeting said that, you know, this would be the, if, if the one time assignment policy had passed and applied to businesses, this would be the biggest economic, um, effect that has hit the Owens Valley since Los Angeles purchased properties in the 1920s. 

AW | 14:12 – And let’s give our listeners around the country a little bit better idea of this county. It’s spectacular in terms of, it goes from the highest point in the continental United States, Mount Whitney to the lowest point in Death Valley. And then there’s also, it’s very sparsely populated. You said it’s only around 20,000 people living in this county, is that correct?

KL | 14:34 – Yeah, the last census had it at about 18,000. It is beautiful and just filled with natural resources, um, well, most importantly, water. One thing that I really thought was interesting about the story was the, uh, what is it? It’s a different take on colonialism, you know, where you have resource rich areas that are providing for less resource rich neighborhoods or not neighborhoods, areas through political power. 

AW | 15:12 – And it’s similar to the arguments of colonialists. You can see people connecting the dots in a similar way, saying the ends justify the means where you have 10 million people in Los Angeles who need water, and there’s only 18,000 people there in, and they’re just an unfortunate byproduct of a situation where we need to supply water to these booming metropolis like Los Angeles. 

KL | 15:39 – You know, you kind of hit it a little bit, spot on. Um, at the time when this was happening in the early 19 hundreds, um, I’m forgetting which, uh, federal agency it was, but they allowed this to happen for the most, it was the most water for the bi for the highest need, and the higher need was the city of Los Angeles’s growth and Development. I believe that was the Bureau of Land Management, but I’m not sure we deviated a little bit. So I’m just gonna get back to like, just describing this county a little bit. It, it’s also home to Death Valley National Park. Um, it’s home to so many natural resources. Um, the Sierra Nevada it borders, uh, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park. Um, it’s just south of Yosemite, but it’s not, you know, it’s not actually part of Yosemite. It has some of the tallest trees on earth, you know, on the Sequoia National Park side. And it has the oldest trees, the oldest known trees on earth, um, in the Indian National Forest, uh, which, uh, I think are, they’re the brittle cone pine trees. And the methuselah tree actually is there. Um, so it just, it’s, it’s incredibly, it, it’s an incredibly important habitat as well. Um, and the Paiute who are the indigenous population have lived there for tens of thousands of years. And, you know, they, you know, have explained how important this fragile ecosystem is. 

AW | 17:05 – Where do the re legal wrangling stand right now, and what kind of resources do the residents of Inyo County have at their disposal to try to strip away some of the monopolistic nature of the nature The relationship right now with DWP, the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles. 

KL | 17:25 – They don’t have a lot, if I’m just going to be honest, in Mono County, there aren’t any protections. And in your county, there are a few protections. There was the Charles Brown Act, which was passed in the 1940s. The Charles Brown Act allows for certain protections. If the city of Los Angeles can’t just sell your property, you know, to the highest bidder or whatever, they have to, if they choose to sell the property, the 10, the tenant has the right of first refusal to purchase that property. Also, leases, uh, must be, you know, they lessees have the right of first refusal for new, uh, for new leases. So they can’t just say, Hey, we’re leasing your property to somebody else. You actually have a guaranteed right to a renewal how timely that renewal is. There is no, you know, language in that for a timely renewal, but this at at least allows, you know, some stability within the region. And so if you’re a Mono County lessee, you have less stability than INO County. Ino County also has, uh, the long-term water agreement, which requires the city of LA to provide water to, uh, certain environmental projects, uh, provide water to the ranchers to stabilize the economy and to provide enough water for people to live so they have to provide water to the town water systems as well. And, um, so those are really the protections. And then the last protection is the court system, but that’s kind of, that’s kind of a mixed bag. Uh, sometimes, you know, litigation that led to the long-term water agreement, which protects in new county, took over 20 years. And, at the last time, the city and the county, or the city of Los Angeles and the county went to court, the county lost on appeal. So the court system, you know, is an imperfect system, but that is really the best avenue. And then the last thing is, the voters of Los Angeles could change this. Why don’t you explain? Yes. So the LA City Charter makes sure that you can’t sell property back without water rights without the two thirds approval of the, of the citizens of Los Angeles. So the citizens of Los Angeles could actually vote to give land back to the communities in the Owens Valley, and that is something that could happen, but it would have to be, you know, a prop, a referendum type of situation.

(Music Break) | 20:23

AW | 21:21 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Katie Licari. She is a reporter for Afro LA. So Katie, what about the role of state legislators in this whole process? I know anybody who’s driven in some of the more rural parts of California has seen a lot of these signs from angry ranchers and farmers who are, are complaining about not getting enough water saying, you know, Gavin Newsom created this mess. Or, this is Nancy Pelosi’s fault. How much of the blame should rest on the state legislators? What kind of power do they have in this situation?

KL | 21:58 – They don’t have a lot. This is, this is the city of Los Angeles’s problem. What they could do is enforce the Charles Brown Act. Um, but, and you know, there, it, you know, I’ve, I’ve gotten some legislative analysis reports, you know, that say that the Charles Brown Act is still in effect because again, this is a law from the 1940s, but it, it really isn’t being as enforced as it could be. But that’s really the only thing the state legislature could do.

AW | 22:27 – One of the things I read in your piece was there’s environmental groups are working with local ranchers to try to help them use less water. 

KL | 22:39 – Kind of a weird thing about the story is like the ranchers are kind of, they’re not fully environmentalists. 

AW | 22:46 – Sure. 

KL | 22:47 – But they are environmental stewards of the land. 

AW | 22:51 – So what are the rights of these ranchers? What, what kind of water rights do they have, Katie? 

KL | 22:59 – Yeah. So, originally, prior to the long-term water agreement, they kind of had, it was a feast or famine mindset. So you either got a ton of water or no water. In 1968, Los Angeles dewatered, half the valley, half the land water, but guaranteed at least four acre feet of water to each rancher on the remaining irrigated pasture land. And then in the preparation for the, uh, second LA aqueduct in the 19 seven that opened in the 1970s, uh, L-A-D-W-P went and they dewatered about half the half the ranch land in the valley. And this caused massive dust issues in town. This led to the water agreement, which guarantees four acre feet of water per irrigated acre. And Los Angeles has to keep irrigating those AC acres. So that is, uh, something, it costs the city of la, uh, like 30 to $40 million per year to offset those irrigated acres through purchases from Metropolitan Water District.

(Music Break) | 24:21 

Narrator 2 | 25:08 – To listen to Sea Change Radio, anytime any place, just subscribe to our free podcast. Simply follow the link from SeaChangeRadio.com or search for us in the iTunes podcast directory. 

AW | 25:21 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Katie Licari. She is a reporter for Afro LA And then in your most recent piece, you’re mentioning not just the water, but infrastructure like airport repair, which is essential in a, a very sparsely populated large county like Ino County. Why don’t you expand on that if you can? 

KL | 25:45 – Yeah. I had never thought about rural airports. You know, you, you don’t really think about non-commercial airports, you know, airports or something that get you from, you know, Los Angeles to, I don’t know, Houston, but not like rural airports are so critical to communities. Uh, the Lone Pine Airport, uh, for example, uh, serves as the search and rescue hub for Mount Whitney and for Death Valley. So if somebody needs help, like medical assistance or a rescue from e from either Death Valley National Park or Mount Whitney, you know, which is, you know, one of the most traversed mountains in, uh, in California, that has to run through the Lone Pine Airport. And so that is critical infrastructure also, um, because of how remote Inyo County is, uh, the, the air ambulance, you know, if anything has to be, you know, you need any kind of specialist care or anything, you have to fly that to Los Angeles or to Reno.  

AW | 26:57 – And also firefighting, I imagine. Yes. 

KL | 26:59 – And firefighting, yes, firefighting for the Eastern Sierra also runs out of the Independence Airport. And if those, uh, you know, if that critical infrastructure can’t be maintained, uh, which you already are seeing at both the Lone Pine and Independence airports, um, and independence, they’re fixing cracks in the runway with cold mix asphalt by hand right now. Um, and at Lone Pine, uh, they’ve already had, they’ve had to, uh, what is it, end Air Ambulance Services at night until they can get a lease long enough to put them, uh, to allow them to put on, um, lighting at night, uh, you know, runway to repair runway lighting at night.

AW | 27:48 – I highly recommend our, our listeners, check back with Afro LA for the next two installments of, of your series. Katie, Katie Licari, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio. 

KL | 27:59 – Thank you so much.

Narrator| 28:16 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Fela Kuti, Dire Straits, John Cleary and Eric Bibb. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site, or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others, and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.