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Health & Lifestyle / Water Wars / March 2, 2010

Mt. Whitney -- Owens Valley

This story was first published on Alternet.org

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, who looks a bit like Noah Cross, the incestuous old pervert in Chinatown, 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 — likeLos 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 Times described 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.

OwensLake-dustStorm

“[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 600,000, or 20 percent of its total Owens Valley exports and a market value of roughly $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.

This story was first published on Alternet.org

Yasha Levine is a mobile home inhabitin’ editor of The eXiled. He is currently stationed in Victorville, CA. You can reach him at levine [at] exiledonline.com

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29 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. mr. mike  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 2:38 am

    LA is more like Rome than any other city I’ve heard of; except for the “entertainment” industry, all it does is suck in what it needs to live very well, then expel tons of waste and smog. The central areas of Southern California have always been the most overlooked parts of the state except for the wealthy enclaves like Palm Springs; the costal cities contol everything miles to the east of them (usually where the water supply comes from.) It’s all ruthlessly artificial and destined to collapse.

  • 2. Myf  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 8:10 am

    I’m glad Yasha is doing this old fashioned exile stuff in southern california, the most 3rd world kleptocratic part of USA for 110 years and running!

  • 3. Gahvanur  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 8:43 am

    The movie Chinatown shocked LA into doing…nothing.

    Maybe that’s why they elected Conan:

    LA DWP! What is best in life?

    -> To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

  • 4. Kamron  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Seems that cities such as Bishop could exercise eminent domain & buy up those empty lots; since the Kelo USSC decision, there’s nothing stopping them from turning around and selling the lots to developers.

  • 5. Reo  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Nice article. Except the incestous old pervert was Noah Cross, not Mulwray.

  • 6. Not important  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 9:18 am

    Don’t go there, Jack- That’s Chinatown…

  • 7. FrankMcG  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Federal regulations forcing the robber barons to cut back is EXACTLY why lobby groups like Freedomworks and their sponsors spend millions trying to paint negative images of government. Any time someone talks about “keeping out big government”, rest assured that the person pulling the strings only cares about lifting the restrictions on the rich.

  • 8. FrankMcG  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 11:39 am

    and anyone who says that private enterprise is efficient while everything the government touches is wasteful, I suspect that they have never worked an office job in their lives. God bless blue collar workers, but if you’ve worked anywhere near an administrative position and gotten a look at the numbers and expense reports, the myth of efficient private industry would instantly vanish.

    Funny though, they never seem to get pissed at the most wasteful branch of them all in the federal government: the military.

  • 9. Hon Kee Mufo  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    that’s because it’s pretty much the only American institution that promotes class mobility in any significant way, and is the only American institution that social conservatives are allowed to approve of which redistributes any wealth at all to non-upper classes

  • 10. Carl The Druid  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Los Angeles has miles and miles of disgusting sprawl, in which being stuck in linear parking lots is daily life, and with it millions of roof tops. Wouldn’t roof top capacity be able to produce electricity? Oh wait, The LA DWP, a government entity, wants to monopolize everything. Instead of raping and stealing the lively hoods of the people of Owens Valley, why not allow people to buy panels for the rooftops. Levine wrote a previous article on that earlier but he was bashing that idea. Instead relying on mass production of automobiles like in the 50′s it would be roof top solar panels production, putting people to work. And that would allow owners to sell spare energy on the open market (or just store it in batteries), just what the cash strapped American needs. That would be a better outcome than pillaging Owens Valley and let some asshole govt. entity monopolize that. Only an evil bastard would hire unionized govt. employees to run the giant solar farm (think prison guards unions).

    The largest Geothermal site in the world is located 75 miles north of San Fransisco and the largest group of Geothermal plants is located in Cali as well. Geothermal energy can produce WAY more electricity than soler but both can help. 1 geothermal plant can power thousands of homes. I don’t see that happening anytime soon because CA has a very hostile business environment (liberals have a fuwked up mentality of “chasing out all the corporations out of our state” and let govt. run everything) and nobody wants to do business there (Which is why Texas surpassed CA in wind energy production because its all about making $$$ and not about federal govt. mandated E.P.A. c02 emissions requirements) CA people would rather let some asshole CA govt. entity monopolize everything then let the evil, evil corporations do their thing and they wonder things turned out to be fuwked up later on. Chevron Corporation is the world’s largest private producer of geothermal electricity, but hey, f00k em!

  • 11. Perpetually Self-Contradicting Liberal Mental Disorder  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    “With no pesky liberal environmentalists around (and just a few pissed-off Owens Valley farmers armed with guns and dynamite)”

    “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”

    That part was groovy. 2nd amendment rights is vital to a Democratic nation. Of course all lib states are the worst anti-gun areas.

    No wonder liberals are jealous when they see armed “Tea Baggers”. “Gee I wish I could do that!” But there are no gun shops in the blue places and in the “red” places they are abundant. How do you like your Anti-gun Democrat leaders now?

  • 12. Down and Out of Sài Gòn  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    PSCLMD: comparing the Tea Baggers to the Owens Valley farmers sounds like an insult to the farmers. The former are a mob of self-unaware fools more interested in media spectacles and talking points than collective and constructive action. At least the latter were aware of their interests, and were willing to risk their lives to defend them.

    BTW: does possession of dynamite fall under your 2nd amendment?

  • 13. FrankMcG  |  March 2nd, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    “Liberaloid” may have given you away as a mentally stunted conservative “comedian”, but at least you were trying. “Liberal mental disorder”? Now that’s just lazy.

    Druid Carl, what exactly are you talking about that California drives out businesses? It has some of the biggest commercial areas in the entire country. What businesses are being driven out? By what? Can you cite anything?

    California has higher taxes (still lower than they should be, thanks Prop 13) than hellhole states to support infrastructure and public services that people enjoy which is exactly why so many live there. Companies locate there exactly because so many people like to live there. If companies moved to Buttfuck, Nevada then any money saved on taxes would have to go towards higher salaries to get anyone to work there. The only business that’s migrating in any big way is on location film/tv production, and that’s only due to its extreme transient nature.

    Does anyone here have any experience AT ALL in California business tax codes? Or is it more talk out your ass radio?

  • 14. Plamen Petkov  |  March 3rd, 2010 at 7:28 am

    it’s simplicity itself:
    either

    we got a lot of people and we generate a lot of pollution and garbage for these people(they need electricity, clean water, land etc etc etc to exist) or

    option 2. we got small amount of people and clean nature.

    no other way. So which one do we choose?
    Don’t gimme that crap about “raping” nature.

  • 15. mms08  |  March 3rd, 2010 at 7:52 am

    Not to be that guy, but i still is a relatively free market and there are tons of fire-sale real estate in this overbuilt country. If the poor townspeople are really sick of putting up with LA bull-shit there is plenty of farm land and small towns in iowa and nebraska they can relocate to…

  • 16. wholelottashakin  |  March 3rd, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    That geothermal project (the Geysers) over the hill on the Sonoma/Mendocino line has been the apparent source of a lot of small-to-moderate earth tremors over the years, and while it may be the biggest, it still ain’t very big. There’s always some unforeseen trade-off with a lot of these brilliant ideas, and the locals get stuck holding the bag.

  • 17. FrankMcG  |  March 3rd, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    #15

    If those whining Indians are so sick of the white man’s encroachment there’s always plenty of American wilderness they can relocate to.

  • 18. adolphhitler  |  March 3rd, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    dude, where have you been…i was beginning to think this thing had turned into Ames personal blog! we need to know whats shak’in in victorville….i saw a big new sign for a new nude bar on the 15 freeway….i bet your fans would like to hear about the nude bar scene up there…maybe with the recession a lot of hotties got laid off and are now dancing…how about it eveyone

  • 19. Joe Stack's Financial Advisor  |  March 3rd, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Solar panel technology will play the steam engine to the combustion engine, relative to fixed-place energy production.

    While the tech is ingenious, the convertible wattage vs. time would need to increase substantially for a “plant” to become an efficient alternative to any of the more “antiquated” fossil fuel plants in terms of acreage required. Individual “grid-tied” panels on residences work much better for this reason, as the space is already occupied, but may be altered (roofs, sheds) w/o loss in function.

    By 2015, the “solar” US (only important country, right?) will reach grid parity with fossils…supposedly.

    The main problem with any of this though, be it individual or plant panels, is that there is MUCH better energy tech out there. Geothermal RAPES solar on cost/benefit; generating much more energy relative to the required investment.

    Ask your self this: In 2015-2020, would you rather have solar panels tacked all over the exterior of your house (not really “your” house, more like the Federal Gov. house by then) or a 500 ft. hole drilled into the earth, with your own scaled energy conversion “engine” sitting next to the water heater in the basement?

  • 20. adolphhitler  |  March 4th, 2010 at 5:29 am

    @19..are you saying geothermal can be had anywhere by just drilling 500 feet down?

  • 21. Harry Ballsach  |  March 4th, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    That Calpine plant is kept going because of subsidies, I don’t think it actually would turn a profit otherwise.

    Millions of solar panels owned privately means no panic and discord when the grid goes down, a measure of sustainability, and no profits for the fat cats so we have to keep that from happening, don’t we?

    The Owens Valley farmers made a mistake in not taking the fight to the enemy. Guns and dynamite still work, and they get more press if they’re used in L.A.

  • 22. Joe Stack's Financial Advisor  |  March 5th, 2010 at 4:54 am

    @20

    Yes…and no. The farther you are away from a fault line the deeper you would need to drill in order to acquire the same amount of energy x miles closer to the fault. This is why a “plant” here in the U.S. is silly; and why individual generation is better (much like solar, but to an even greater degree).

    To power a town, a plant might have to drill the whole 3 (15k ft) miles down to get at that sweet free thermal. To power the average household’s 50kwh daily usage, maybe only a 3-5k ft hole (i said 500 above, oops). There are areas like Yosemite that have the necessary thermal at the SURFACE, imagine what’s below.

    I think we’ll see a geothermal “red gold” type drilling craze by 2050, much like the oil drilling boom. Maybe Hollywood can get Daniel Day-Lewis to assume the role of the hard-nosed geothermal drilling capitalist.

  • 23. Joe Stack's Financial Advisor  |  March 5th, 2010 at 5:09 am

    “The Earth’s crust and mantle differ in their ratio of helium isotopes. Usually, helium-4 is more abundant in the crust, and helium-3 is more abundant in the mantle. So, the research team looked to see if the water at known geothermal areas contained a different ratio of helium isotopes.

    Thus, to find a geothermal hot spot for energy generation, measure the helium isotope ratio in groundwater, and if it is high in helium-3 you have yourself a potential spot to drill. This technique could be used to map the potential of geothermal areas, and determine where geothermal technology will be most effective, hopefully with the least environmental damage, or seismic risk.”

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/12/easy_geothermal.php

    Looks like people ,everyone that’s left ;) , will be moving into the central U.S. The boiling point for the higher elevations is also lower (about 5% lower), which makes geothermal that much more efficient.

  • 24. adolphhitler  |  March 6th, 2010 at 9:00 am

    @23…JUST FOR COMPARISON, HOW FAR DOWN DO YOU NORMALLY DRILL FOR OIL?

  • 25. Tigre  |  March 6th, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    I’m the local guy that wrote the LA Times coment that Yasha quoted above. Lo and behold, an exiled reader.

    Some one above asked why the City of Bishop does not use eminent domain to sieze DWP land.

    I have asked this very question- the answer I have been told is that no one has ever successfully siezed LA land.

    The City of Bishop has threatend to sieze LA land, what this invaribly does is bring DWP to the table with more favorable lease extensions. They make the price low and extendt the time period, but the offer of a sale is never on the table, so rather than risk everything in a fight, the wise choice is to take the favorable lease.

    Did you know that the City of Bishop pays DWP $1000 a year to lease 40 acres at the City Park. The City had been trying to buy the park for 20 years, when Villagairosa got in as mayor, DWP finally agreed to explore the idea. They got as far as an appraisal even, which came back at $400,000, a price that Bishop would have gladly paid.

    Given a choice of a paltry sum to the DWP, and continued politcial leverage, the department chose the leverage and wouldn’t sell the park.

    By the way Yasha, most people who write about the Owens Valley get it wrong by only focusing on the environment.

    Your story is way better than most because you aknowledge the money on the table and the fact that people live here.

  • 26. klauposius  |  March 15th, 2010 at 5:16 am

    Government rough housing at the behest and cooperation of big business is how california was built. We make spooky movies about it and get very upset. The Chinese of course make it a part of the system. China is LA thousands of times over. With an army backing up the asshole side.

  • 27. ovc  |  May 19th, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    As a resident of the town of Independence in the Owens Valley, which is pretty much owned by LADWP I can tell you this. There are always trade offs in life. LADWP and the Owens River Valley, it’s a double edge sword. If DWP didn’t own all the land they do in Owens Valley it would be over populated, crime redden and polluted like LA. I’ll take the small population, small towns the beautiful Sierras and the wide-open spaces LA can have a large portion of my water if it means keeping LA in LA. As far as the super solar array… go for it DWP. It will be on DWP land and will not affect me in any way; it will bring jobs to our towns and families with children to our schools and will be producing green energy. So, what’s so wrong with that?

  • 28. kony  |  June 18th, 2012 at 4:32 am

    hi i took your baby

  • 29. bin laden  |  June 18th, 2012 at 4:34 am

    hi i bomb your house you white american bean head hahahaha


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