L.A.'s New Scheme to Plunder Owens Valley Water, This Time with Solar Panels

News & Politics

The city of Los Angeles recently announced plans to transform Owens Valley into one of the largest sources of solar power in America, outfitting the region with a massive energy farm that would span 80 square miles and generate up to 10 percent of California's total electricity output. It truly is a monster, able to generate as much as 5 gigawatts of electricity, enough to power 1.5 million homes, dwarfing China's plans to build the world's biggest solar farm by a factor of three.

The scale of this energy farm would make a solar panel manufacturer drool: while its total cost has not been disclosed, a test section 1/600th of the project's final size is expected to cost $50 million. The hefty price tag is why L.A.'s Department of Water and Power (DWP), the city's giant utility that will build and operate the solar farm, is eager to get cranking, afraid of missing its opportunity to tap into the lucrative government subsidies being handed out for solar and other green energy projects before they disappear.

On February 2, DWP general manager David Freeman made the 250-mile trip to the Owens Valley to sell the locals on the plan, pitching it as a sure way to create jobs in the depressed rural region, increase local tax revenues and save their environment.

“It's a triple hitter," he said, trying to convince Owens Valley residents why they shouldn't object to a solar farm being built in their community. "I want this project to benefit the people up here in every way we can think of."

In reality, the project would benefit L.A. more than anyone else. DWP does not plan on transmitting the electricity it produces to Los Angeles directly, nor does it plan to share some of it with Owens Valley. Instead, the agency plans to do something much more lucrative: sell the power on the open market to utility giants like Edison Co. and Pacific Gas & Electric and send a big chunk of the profits to Los Angeles. In 2009 alone, it contributed nearly $200 million to Los Angeles' general fund. DWP is a money-maker for L.A., and the city wants to expand the utility's business horizons.

But there is another side to the story that Freeman and the other Los Angeles bosses won't tell you: The project is as much about making money off green energy as it is about old-school plunder, about how one mighty municipality hijacked water from one of the most beautiful regions in California to make L.A.'s early-20th century real estate tycoons even richer. It's a plunder that keeps on giving.

The groundwork for L.A.'s looting happened almost a century ago. At the time, the city's population was exploding, doubling every couple of years, feeding a real estate market that was entering hyper-bubble territory. The city's land-owning tycoons -- like Los Angeles Times owners Gray Otis and Harry Chandler -- needed all the water they could get to feed this bubble. That's when they set their sights on Owens Valley, located in the Sierra Nevadas 250 miles away from Los Angeles. The 14,000-foot mountains that surround the valley collect rain and snow, feeding it into the Owens River and Owens Lake. If tapped with an aqueduct, the valley could supply more than one million people and require no pumping. Because the valley sat 4,000 feet above sea level, water would simply flow downhill.

The city sent thugs and operatives to the Owens Valley to secretly buy up land and mount a hostile takeover of its water, bribing, scamming and roughing up anyone who tried to resist. In 1913, the water started to flow. With no pesky liberal environmentalists around (and just a few pissed-off Owens Valley farmers armed with guns and dynamite), L.A. managed to transform the valley into an arid wasteland, draining Owens Lake in the space of a decade and making the region inhospitable to agriculture. It became the most infamous water grab in American history, and the inspiration for Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

By the 1920s, desperate farmers started turning to terrorism to defend their livelihoods, dynamiting the aqueduct a few dozen times and sporadically staging armed assaults. Los Angeles put down the insurrection by sending its own armed LAPD posse to protect the aqueduct and keep the peace, writes PBS:

Resistance flared up again in 1927, when four masked men captured guards and blew up a 45-foot section of the aqueduct. [William] Mulholland [who ran DWP] sent out horseback patrols armed with machine guns, and issued shoot-to-kill orders when the aqueduct was bombed again. But by the next year the war was over. The Owens Valley Bank collapsed, wiping out the leaders of the opposition....

Los Angeles has kept Owens Valley in a totalitarian lockdown ever since, running it like a banana republic that produces one valuable crop: water.

Today, Los Angeles gets about 30 percent of its entire water supply from the Owens Valley, and the city protects it aggressively, doing everything to maximize exports and minimize internal consumption.

As the valley's largest private landholder, L.A. has waged a war of stagnation on the valley's small towns by restricting access to real estate, leveling some properties and letting others stand vacant. As recently as 2004, Los Angeles cynically tried to convince the locals to codify this low-level warfare by barring any new development in the valley to “preserve" its decrepit ambiance.

Here's how the Los Angeles Timesdescribed the scene:

In Independence, a town of 500, the sole grocery store recently closed because its customer base had dwindled. About 15 miles south in downtown Lone Pine, the DWP last summer demolished several buildings it owned on a single block, leaving behind three gravel-covered lots locals have dubbed "the missing teeth of Main Street."

You can see the locals' frustration and anger in the comments sections of news sites, like this comment on a Los Angeles article about the solar project:

L.A. owns sections of our neighborhoods, leaving rundown empty homes in towns that are in need of additional housing. We build small homes in backyards, and crowd small trailer parks into our towns to make up for the lack of room. ... In the City of Bishop, we have a large empty lot in the middle of town, jokingly referred to as "people's park." We don't [want] LA owned open space in the middle of town, we need homes.

While its towns stagnated, parts of the Owens Valley were turned into one of the most polluted places in America. A century of water diversions had turned Owens Lake into a toxic salt flat where fierce winds whipped up toxic dust and heavy metal-laden dusts and spread it across the valley.

“[T]he 100-square-mile lake bed became one of the largest sources of hazardous dust in the nation," according to the L.A. Times. That was Owens Valley's problem, as far as L.A. was concerned. So the stripping and pollution continued largely unnoticed until it became suddenly unprofitable -- the toxic dust didn't bother L.A. until it started cutting into its water export racket.

In 2001, to comply with federal clean air laws, L.A. was forced to shallow-flood 40 square miles of Owens Lake. That meant leaving enough water for a city of 300,000, or 20 percent of its total Owens Valley exports and a market value of roughly $6-10 million. It was a small victory for the local population. Stronger federal environmental regulations finally put the law on their side and succeeded in forcing their overlord to leave some of its looted water behind.

And that's where the solar project comes in: L.A. hopes to use the 80-square-mile solar array to slow down and break up the killer storms the city is responsible for creating. Because, as far as Los Angeles is concerned, dumping water back into Owens Lake is just as good as wasting it.

Although DWP would have to use large amounts of water to keep its solar panels clean and free of dirt, the project would save much more than it would consume. If built to its full monstrous capacity—5 gigawatts—DWP's Owens Valley solar project would use 83 million gallons of water every year, a fraction of the 10 billion gallons L.A. is forced to leave behind just for dust mitigation. (Industry standards say that one megawatt of solar power requires 16,689 gallons of water.)

“We will save water by not having to use so much of it to control dust, we will cut down on the wind that creates the dust storms with the solar panels, and we will generate renewable energy at the same time," the DWP's David Freeman told a packed church auditorium in the Owens Valley. “I don't know of any time in our 80-year history here that there has been so much common interest."

The locals know L.A.'s green posturing is just for show, and that the city is still the same predatory beast. The solar panel deal would be great for Los Angeles, allowing it to resume looting water at maximum levels and make money selling electricity. But it seems like the people of Owens Valley get nothing but a whole new layer of exploitation rubbed in their faces: not only will their Los Angeles overlords continue their plunder, now they'll have a whole new revenue stream.

L.A.'s utility chief Freeman recently told a reporter that the DWP owned the people of Owens Valley “lock, stock and barrel." He was right.

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