Contested Water, Unholy Alliances, and Globalized Colonies: Exploring the Perception of Water by Residents of the Los Angeles Aqueduct Watershed

Fig. 1. Grant Lake. © Eric Haley 2012

Lee-Anne Milburn, Ph.D. and Barry Lehrman, with Tiernan Doyle, Eric Haley, James Powell and Devon Santy


Located in the Central Eastern area of California along the border with Nevada, the Eastern Sierra is facing the  effects of climate change: altered precipitation patterns, increasing extreme weather events, and changing ecological processes. Within the Eastern Sierra, the Mono and Owens River Basins make up the watershed supplying the Los Angeles Aqueduct.  They are the westernmost valleys of the geographical province, and are located in a diverse and ecologically complex setting.

Climate change in this area is of special concern because of the resource commitments to both local and regional entities. The inevitability of increased fluctuations in the water supply threatens the health of inhabitants and ecosystems of the Eastern Sierra as well as the Aqueduct’s end-users in Los Angeles.

Against the background of the Aqueduct’s centennial, the Metabolic Studio sponsored the Aqueduct Futures project at the California State Polytechnic University of Pomona.  As part of this exploration of alternative futures for the Aqueduct and its watershed, a team of graduate students from the Masters of Landscape Architecture program  developed regional strategies for sustainable land use and watershed planning along the northern half of the Aqueduct.

While the larger project focused on scenarios for the future of the Aqueduct as a structure, as well as the source of water for Los Angeles, students and faculty in the Master’s program collected data focussing on how water is perceived by the public and residents of the Aqueduct basin. This paper explores those perceptions, and their implications for planning and design, suggesting design methods and land use guidelines that seek a balance between the social, political, and ecological needs of the area.


Nestled between the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west and the White and Inyo Mountains to the east, the scenery is diversely spectacular (Fig.1). The Eastern Sierra’s watershed offers a striking combination of preserved lands and intensive resource extraction. Closely connected to both Yosemite and Death Valley National Parks, the Eastern Sierra attracts a wide variety of visitors using the parks for recreation. Apart from their beauty, the region’s natural systems are the result of highly specialized interactions between topography, climate, hydrology, and ecology. Water is an especially prized commodity throughout the region because the valleys to the east rest in the rain shadow created by the Sierra Nevada Mountains. While the western slope of the Sierra averages 45 inches of precipitation per year, the Owens Valley floor receives five inches in addition to abundant flows from snowmelt supplying the creeks, rivers, and aquifers of the valley (NRCS 1998).

As it looks today, the Eastern Sierra is a sparsely inhabited area flanked by two massive mountain ranges. Only a handful of towns provide homes for the bulk of the local residents, with miles of open land in between. In the past few decades, hydrologic extractions and diversions have caused a flurry of litigation revolving around the environmental effects of water export. Environmental degradation such as habitat destruction, dried up springs, and significant river channelization (Fig. 2) are slowly being addressed by mandated mitigation projects (LADWP and ICWD 1991).

Fig. 2. Walker Creek. © Eric Haley 2012

History of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

Completed in 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct holds the honor of being the first major municipal water project in the state of California (HAER 2010). The initial transference brought water 233 miles (375 km) from the Owens River to Los Angeles. In order to increase supply, a second conduit was added in 1970 that stretches south from Haiwee Reservoir to Santa Clarita (HAER 2010). The Los Angeles Aqueduct and the Eastern Sierra have contributed to infrastructure development, allowed massive population growth, and provided for irrigation within one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country (LADWP 2002).

Though early farming and mining took their toll on the original landscape of the Eastern Sierra, the most drastic changes to the Owens Valley took place after 1913, when the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed. Although agricultural activity throughout the valley had already begun lowering lake levels, Aqueduct diversions accelerated the process and Owens Lake was dry by 1924 (Gagnon 2001). Subsequent groundwater pumping, in addition to diversions from nearby creeks and the Owens River, significantly lowered the valley’s aquifers and produced changes in much of its remaining native vegetation (LADWP and ICWD 1991).

Regulatory Context

Due to the myriad of  demands of land planning for human and ecological needs, it has been difficult to establish a management protocol that retains enough water within the Eastern Sierra while still providing an adequate supply for the City of Los Angeles (even with diversification of the city’s imported water supplies). Lawsuits involving decision-makers and stakeholders have been a way of life since the 1920s, when disputes over land ownership between farmers and the City of Los Angeles intensified (Libecap 2005).

Opposing viewpoints and competing claims have stymied productive land and water management between the Inyo County Water Department (ICWD) and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Despite the Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) of 1991, the necessity for court intervention in management decisions has solidified a lasting tension between Inyo and Mono County and the City of Los Angeles. Unease continues with LADWP’s current lawsuits against the Town of Mammoth Lakes, where arguments over surface water use have become more contentious (Gervais 2012).  And while the LADWP does have contracts for water with several of the ranchers that lease land from the agency,  the supplies to Lone Pine, Big Pine, Independence, and the reservations are exempt from the LTWA (LADWP 2006). Most of the inhabited areas throughout the valley and Mono Basin derive their water supply from small mutual water companies and community well or spring supplies.

Under what conditions might land and water management in the Owens Valley move past stalemate?  In this complex and piecemeal regulatory landscape, is it possible to generate consensus around innovative policies, programs, and tools for water conservation, filtration, and infiltration?  If the values and perceptions of the watershed’s inhabitants were as well understood as the demands of the end-users,  could the Aqueduct’s future be shaped as much by the community that inhabits the watershed as by the community that extracts its resources?


Providing insights into how water is perceived in a politically complex environment such as the Owens Valley cannot be done through a descriptive, statistically based analysis of simple survey responses. As noted in Mulley (2007), landscape and quality of life factors are difficult to address using superficial questioning techniques. People tend to give economic responses to quality-of-life questions when given simple choices or written surveys. Deeper issues related to landscape 1) have an exploratory or discursive component (such as focus groups or interviews), 2)  incrementally increase the complexity of the questions (often open-ended questions that build on one another, such as in a semi-structured interview), or 3) questions that encourage people to tell stories rather than provide short “off the cuff” answers. Because of this, the issue was addressed through the analysis of focus group workshops, questionnaires and interviews in the aggregate, observing themes, patterns of responses, and sequencing, rather than a more traditional content-oriented approach.

To understand the concerns of the study-area residents, the team chose to employ a method that included the analysis of focus group workshops, questionnaires and interviews in the aggregate, observing themes, patterns of responses, and sequencing, rather than a more traditional content-oriented approach.

Focus Groups

The team facilitated two community focus groups: one in Lone Pine, California on February 16, 2013, the other one in June Lake, California on February 17, 2013. Lone Pine and June Lake were chosen as locations in order to allow a broader portion of the study-area population to make their voices heard. These two locations are near the south and north ends of the study-area respectively, and the team was hopeful that residents of nearby communities would be willing to make the short commute to these workshops, rather than the long drive to Bishop. To encourage broad participation, the workshops were advertised via email for several weeks prior to the events. The Mono Lake Committee, Owens Valley Committee, and the Inyo-Mono Regional Water Management Group distributed the invitations to their contact lists. Seventeen people participated in the focus group at Lone Pine, and eight participated at June Lake.

The workshop format was simple: three activities allowed participants to engage in group discussion about their concerns for their local communities and the Eastern Sierra. The focus group format included small group discussions, large group discussions, and individual responses.


The team posted a survey on to obtain local opinions about various topics, from political decision-making to ecological health in the Eastern Sierra. A link to the survey was emailed along with the community workshop flyer to all of the research team’s contacts with various Eastern Sierra agencies and organizations. Several of those organizations then forwarded the survey link to their emailing lists. The survey was posted on January 28, 2013 and the team kept it open to responses until March 31, 2013. The survey was written to include both numerical ranking questions and open-ended write-in questions.


Community workshops and the online survey provided valuable information about the community and stakeholder needs within the general study-area. In order to develop additional depth and detail to the data from the community workshops and survey, the team met with 14 individuals who represented decision making agencies, organizations with significant influence on the planning and land management of the area, and underrepresented organizations that have specific interest in local planning and land management, including:

  • • Mono and Inyo County Planning and Water Departments
  • • LADWP
  • • Inyo-Mono Regional Water Management Group
  • • Owens Valley Committee Board of Directors
  • • Sierra Nevada Conservancy and Eastern Sierra Audubon
  • • Big Pine Paiute Tribe
  • • City of Los Angeles City Councilmembers
  • • Mono Lake Committee

Participants were originally contacted by email and were either interviewed over the phone, on location in the Eastern Sierra area, or in Los Angeles, per their preference. Participants were given a brief summary of the project, and a series of questions was prepared based on the participants’ area of expertise. Interviews were informally structured and the conversation was allowed to flow naturally. The project team took turns posing the prepared discussion topics to the interviewees to make sure that all the necessary points were covered.

Focus Group Results

Seventeen local residents attended the Lone Pine workshop, including one participant who made the trip from Ridgecrest, California. The following day, a total of eight residents from the northern reaches of the study-area participated in the June Lake workshop.

Among the top five priorities from the Lone Pine meeting were:

  • • Mitigate groundwater pumping effects, follow EIRs (Environmental Impact Reports), and enforce existing agreements
  • • Demand LADWP facilitate sustainable small-scale farming near developed towns
  • • Protect natural, cultural, and historical resources on LADWP and other lands
  • • Ensure/preserve valley floor open space concerning recreation value and conservation easement
  • • Accommodate climate change variability

The top five priorities from the June Lake meeting were:

  • • Involve Eastern Sierra representatives in planning made in Los Angeles related to the Eastern Sierra, and vice-versa
  • • Increase LADWP’s cooperation with communities in economic development efforts
  • • Create a work plan for aqueduct infrastructure maintenance/upgrades/improvement
  • • Undertake a comprehensive hydrologic study of June Lake area
  • • Increase transparency by making all planning information on both sides available to all who are interested

The most common themes became the dominant categories. The water-related responses and synthesized themes were:

Cooperation & Communication

  • • Educate locals on headwater stewardship
  • • Communicate with Los Angeles to increase understanding of past “mistakes” and for better planning for improvement in the future
  • • Create a commitment that requires cooperation between Eastern Sierra and other agencies (LADWP)

Development & Economy

  • • Create/form tourism “planning committee”
  • • Encourage sustainable economic development
  • • Acquire local control of food sources
  • • Expand Mammoth Hospital and its ability to provide for its patients
  • • Maintain economically productive local fisheries
  • • Stop approving development where resources are lacking—eliminate over-riding considerations


  • • Restore Baker Creek Meadows
  • • Make decisions for ecological health rather than economic advancement
  • • Reclaim enough water locally to be sustainable
  • • Restore or expand pupfish habitat
  • • Use the watershed boundaries as priority for all planning processes


  • • Secure water rights for native communities

In addition to these main categories:

  • • Allow tribes to use the resources available to them (water and land)
  • • Decrease water pumping amounts – allow groundwater to recover

Survey Results

Overall, there were 23 respondents to the questionnaire. Only one of those surveyed was not a resident of the study-area, and while the local respondents were distributed across the study-area, the majority of them were from the Bishop area. The survey results are integrated into the “theme” discussion below.

Interview Results

The interviewees expressed several important themes, some of which were addressed by multiple individuals. The most common theme was the lack of constructive cooperation between LADWP and local governments, agencies, interest groups and residents. It was clear that further openness could be mutually beneficial for the residents and agencies operating within the study-area. Recreation was brought up in several different forms, and it became clear that planning tools needed to address how to maintain and improve upon the current recreation system that brings so many people to the area. Environmental quality related to the water extraction practices also came up in several of the meetings, and became a constant component in the development of planning guidelines and implementation activities.

Integrated Water-Related Result Themes

While the focus group, questionnaire and interviews culminated in a large quantity of descriptive and nominal data, the details of those results are outside the scope of this paper. The results are available in the full Watershed Whispers report (Cal Poly Pomona, 606 team 2013). The following are the results based on a meta-analysis of the themes and trends evident in the focus groups, questionnaires, and interviews.

1. Water is a symbol of control and power.

Rather than being a seen as a resource, water is identified relative to power (LADWP) and the lack thereof (especially related to the Native American population). According to one participant, “…local Paiute tribes have been given a hideously raw deal in terms of water and land rights—they’ve been moved off their traditional lands and onto lands where LADWP holds the water rights, and their water has been switched from high-quality sources to the dregs of LADWP’s supplies in the eastern Sierra. They now have to report exactly how much water they use to LADWP, to beg for yearly water allotments from LADWP, and to wait when LADWP deems it inappropriate to grant them water.”

2. Water is more significant in its absence.

Unsurprisingly, water is discussed in terms of the impact its absence has rather than its presence. This has been seen in other research, related to less tangible, non-financial goods; the value of them is identified when they are lost or at risk of loss. (Milburn, Brown and Mulley 2010) According to participants, lack of water blocks development, reduces agriculture, creates dust, eliminates wildlife and habitat, and creates negative aesthetics.

3. Water is perceived as important because of its impact on recreation and aesthetics.

Even in the Eastern Sierra, the first consideration relative to water availability is not one related to survival (minimum quantity availability), conservation (water use reduction), or water quality. In people’s minds, the impact of reduced water availability is felt most strongly on the quality of the recreational experience, especially as related to aesthetics.

Beyond the appearance of water and its related habitats (riparian buffers, floodplain vegetation, etc.), participants focused on dust as an aesthetic concern, identifying the landscape as “Drier and dustier.” “Groundwater pumping and steadily lowered water tables have slowly converted the landscapes that I saw when I first came here from alkali meadows to moonscapes, ” and “…underground pumping has resulted in more dust in the air during wind events because now there is no vegetation to hold it down. Also, the street trees in the communities have decreased… many on fixed incomes can’t afford to water their vegetation. That makes the town brown.” (Fig. 3)

Fig. 3. Owens Lake dust bowl. © Eric Haley 2012

4. Reduced access to water is not seen as mitigated by conservation, rather, it is mitigated by ownership.

Instead of focusing on reduced water consumption (even redirected water consumption goals for Los Angeles residents), study participants focused on water access as a product of ownership, rather than availability. “The land ownership issue is one that makes my blood boil because it all focus’s [sic] on the water and any other resource that was under the indigenous peoples feet. LADWP… and other federal agencies… have land… and it pisses me off since it leaves very little for progress and no chance to add any type of development to create any type of jobs for the youth and willing.”

5. Development is good; additional water consumption is bad. The two are not related.

There was a clear inconsistency between positions on development and increased water use. Participants clearly differentiated between the two goals in their minds, and were able to embrace both positions simultaneously, in spite of their obvious link. According to one participant: “If you define LADWP as a ‘private’ landowner, then we need less ‘private’ land ownership; if you define LADWP as a ‘public’ landowner, then we likely need more ‘private’ land. LADWP’s ownership of the vast majority of the Owens Valley floor precludes or impairs conservation projects and small business development alike.”

6. Private land ownership leads to water conservation and small business development.

This position is strongly related to the dominance of LADWP’s land ownership in the area, but is notably in conflict with societal trends to see the government and public ownership result in improved conservation management. The government and their representative agencies are not perceived by the public as being less responsible figures in conservation efforts than private land owners. According to one participant, “Too many governmental or agencies like LADWP own the land. There’s not much left for private ownership,” and “The future of LADWP lands is a large concern. The management of public land is a concern. Protection of special resources by overburdened public land managers is a concern. Control of noxious weeds and restoration of impacted habitats is a concern. Conservation of farms, ranches, wildlife habitat on private lands is important to our identity, quality of life, and economy.”

7. Land and water are inextricably tied together.

In most areas of the country, land and water issues are separated in the public’s mind. In the case of the study participants in the Eastern Sierra, the visual evidence of water scarcity has linked water to the land that holds, filters, and infiltrates it. Respondents indicate impacts on water adjacent landscapes when discussing habitat: “Alkali meadow habitat, riparian habitat, and particularly spring habitat (incredibly degraded or gone), and the species that live there.” (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4. Owens River at Hwy 136. © Eric Haley 2012

Discussion: Involvement in Decision-Making

As the demographics in the Eastern Sierra change, there will be an increasing demand for public involvement in decision-making. The landowners move to rural areas not just because they want to be “close to nature,” but also because they want to “manage” or “care for” nature. This desire to be actively involved partly reflects a desire to participate in improving the quality of their environment.

Without consultation by local experts and community members, land planning and design efforts will be unable to meet the existing needs of the communities, or to articulate satisfying and enriching futures. Engaging in this process is especially important in the Eastern Sierra, where interviews and examination of newspaper and web sources indicate a high level of frustration with the opacity of land management plans that are developed by the LADWP and Federal agencies in the area (Gervais 2012).

Meetings with key stakeholders within the study-area revealed a unified desire to hold more meetings with the LADWP and create an open dialogue on land use policy and environmental strategies. Illustrating the lack of communication between Los Angeles and the Eastern Sierra was the conservation easement plan proposed by Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn in 2004. This would have placed a majority of LADWP’s lands in trust for environmental preservation and alleviated local concerns over unapproved development and unexpected outside intervention from Los Angeles. Because, however, this plan was not discussed with local communities or organizations, its intentions were not made clear, and the effort failed (Broder 2004).


Landowners and residents are not interested in learning about, or participating in, initiatives that have no visually tangible result. This issue explains the lack of interest in learning about water quality, wastewater management, and other concerns. Changing conservation behaviors requires that residents be able to directly relate physical results to their activities (Petry & Simcic 2002).  To get support, water policy changes need to be linked to tangible and visually evident results, and these changes need to be clearly articulated and demonstrated.

The other two issues that should be addressed to increase community capacity for change related to water, are influence and applicability. Influence is the ability of a single individual to create change, thereby overcoming a sense of helplessness. Applicability is the perception that given information, or action, are relevant to an individual’s identified goals or problems. Strategies in the Eastern Sierra need to address not only the behavior of the LADWP, but also clearly articulate and support changes the individual can make. This effort is less directed at the impacts of these individual actions, than at the change in attitude that it precedes. Agencies in the Eastern Sierra also need to invest effort in tying their priorities to those of local residents, and communicating those relationships.

Changing Demographic

The migration of the youth out of the Eastern Sierra, and the movement of non-farming, rural recreation-oriented landowners into the area is gradually changing not only the demographic profile of the area, but also the dominant political attitudes and community priorities. With the changing population, the Eastern Sierra will see increasing environmental concern with the associated indignation, interest in nature, knowledge of issues and action strategies, verbal commitment, and sense of responsibility (Kals, Schumacher and Montada 1999, Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002). On the other hand, as the population shifts, the standards for access to water use, aesthetics, and recreation will also change. New residents will not have the same history related to these issues, and so their “baseline” of comparison will be closer to current, rather than historical, conditions. This will change the focus of concern to be future-oriented, rather than related to the past.

It should be noted that Kaplan and Kaplan (1989),among others, suggest that seniors may prefer landscapes with greater evidence of human impact, and as the Eastern Sierra population ages, structural interventions in the landscape to address water issues will be more accepted. Higher levels of education will lead to a reduced need for order and neatness in natural areas (Kaplan & Kaplan 1989, Lyons 1983).

Design and Planning Implications

  1. Design and planning in the Eastern Sierra cannot occur without substantive public participation (rather than public consultation—see Arnstein 1969).  There is a strong belief in the local communities that lack of participation in decision-making leads to preferential treatment and inequities. They are particularly sensitive to this issue because of the impact Los Angeles residents have on their quality of life without any perceived accountability.
  2. The absence of water creates community capacity and willingness to address water issues. The Eastern Sierra communities are sensitized to the issues of water quality and quantity because of the visual evidence of the lack of water. This capacity can be leveraged to create community support for innovative approaches to water management, infiltration, and filtration, as well as support for water-related educational and recreational programming. This additional capacity will result in support for new policy.
  3. Policy that relates to water should be crafted, maintained and justified with an eye to what is important for the public, rather than the people writing policy. To the public, impact on recreation and aesthetics are extremely important. While we change water policy to address problems with water quality, quantity and accessibility, these changes should be framed in terms of their recreational and aesthetic impacts.
  4. The LADWP has been largely unsuccessful in its efforts to change public behavior relative to water conservation. As such, people continue to disassociate water use and water availability. In the Eastern Sierra, this is complicated by the politics of water access. People assume that if more land was in private ownership, more water would be available. Additional transparency related to water consumption, decision-making, and the impacts of development decisions are necessary to address this issue. Education across California needs to more effectively tie behavior and water availability, though this will be a challenge so long as water remains available with the only evidence of increasing scarcity being increased cost. Scarcity needs to be established using physically and visually clear tools to make connections for users throughout the state.
  5. The water availability impacts of development need to be made clear using visual tools, numeric metrics, and articulate language.
  6. Similar to policies that require replanting of tree stock to replace areas cleared for lumber, more direct links between water removals by LADWP and conservation efforts are important. Policies must tie conservation directly to water quantities and financial costs to create public confidence that government funding cuts will not result in reduced conservation capacity of the agency.  Rather than having conservation efforts funded separately, funding should be allocated on a unit basis, with expenditures determined by a group composed of LADWP representatives, scientists, and local residents.
  7. Policy should leverage the recognition of the link between land and water in the Eastern Sierra.  While in most areas of the country the public sees land and water as two separate issues, with different management and planning considerations, the extreme aesthetic and recreational impacts of water withdrawals in the Eastern Sierra have created a capacity in local residents to address water issues that would otherwise struggle for support.


Three key issues will determine the effectiveness of water-related policys the relationship between Los Angeles and the Eastern Sierra evolves. Local involvement in decision-making will be the key factor for creating support for the implementation of existing and new policies. Approaches to addressing water quality and quantity challenges need to be developed, which tie water to factors that are important to residents and tangibly impact the individual and community’s quality of life, such as recreation and aesthetics. Finally, while our changing demographics will result in an increasing demand for public involvement and its associated challenges, it will also create community and cultural capital to support changes in individual behaviors, involvement in community conservation groups and organizations, and a willingness to change individual behaviors to address current conditions, rather than a focus on (and idealization of) past conditions.

For Los Angeles, the Aqueduct is an invisible lifeline that is understood as an abstract idea. Water scarcity is reflected in policy, cost and a slowly evolving water-conservation-oriented landscape aesthetic, but largely disassociated from its quality of life considerations. Until water scarcity reaches a crisis point, wherein access to water is limited or water quality is compromised, public agencies will struggle to change water-related attitudes and behaviors. In the Eastern Sierra, the opportunity to leverage the evidence of unsustainable water consumption is evident on the landscape. The area is fertile ground for innovative policies, programs, and tools for water conservation, filtration, and infiltration.  The Aqueduct’s future will be defined more by the community that inhabits the watershed, than by the community that uses its resources—if it is empowered to act.


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Tiernan Doyle is a 2013 graduate of Cal Poly Pomona’s Landscape Architecture program.

Eric Haley received his Master’s of Landscape Architecture degree from Cal Poly Pomona in 2013, where he participated in the Aqueduct Futures capstone project. He is now a designer at EPT Design.

Barry Lehrman is Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, where he leads the Aqueduct Futures program. He is the author of “Reconstructing the Void: Owens Lake” in The Infrastructural City, Kazys Varnelis, editor (ACTAR, 2008).

Lee-Anne Milburn, PhD serves as chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at Cal Poly Pomona. Her research focuses on water, energy, transportation, and land uses.

James Powell is a design associate at Alta Planning and Design in Los Angeles. He completed his capstone project in the Cal Poly Pomona Landscape Architecture program in 2013.

Devon Santy earned his Master’s of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona in 2013. A University Olmstead Scholar, his work has focused on watershed management and river restoration.

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