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After 93 years, L.A. gives its water back

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But the new agreement will mean Los Angeles customers will have to find about 9,000 acre feet of water – roughly the needs of 9,000 homes for one year – from other sources, such as the Colorado River, or through better reclamation, reuse, and conservation. But Nahai and other officials say the city has been successful with conservation efforts as a result of public education campaigns, tested during intermittent droughts since the 1980s. Though Los Angeles has added more than 750,000 residents since 1986, it uses the same amount of water today as then.

For Inyo County, however, the change is considered to be dramatic.

"This is definitely an historic turning point for Inyo County that residents have been waiting for for a long time," says Denise Racine of the California Department of Fish and Game. Besides the aesthetic beauty of a flowing river that attracts anglers, boaters, and swimmers, the river is expected to generate an explosion of plant life that includes banks of new trees.

That, in turn, helps to spur the return of more birds and wildlife, including elk, deer, and wild mink.

"In 10 years this place will be magnificent," says Kathleen New, president of the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce and a lifelong resident. "This is a very, very big deal for us to know that people will want to come here, spend time and enjoy the beauty."

Some residents, including Ms. New, say the original 1913 land and water grab by LADWP had one positive result: The area was never developed. The county's 18,000 residents live on 1.7 percent of the land. The rest is owned by the state, the federal Bureau of Land Management, or the LADWP. In the early 1900s, city agents posed as farmers and ranchers to buy land and water rights. Later, Los Angeles built pumps and dams to divert the water from local springs and wetlands to Los Angeles.

Local opposition to LADWP water diversions is not limited to the Owens River saga. Beginning in 1939, the LADWP built a tunnel beneath Mono Lake, another pristine, environmental treasure 90 miles north, and began draining it for use in Los Angeles. After 50 years of litigation, the water depletion was halted about a decade ago, and water levels are now close to pre-1939 levels.

"If it weren't for LADWP, we would probably look like Palmdale and other developed cities in the California desert, so I am thankful for that," says New. "But it would be nice to have water."

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