LA Aqueduct at 100: LA's water department casts its shadow over the Owens Valley

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LA Aqueduct anniversary series 2013This story is part of KPCC's weeklong series exploring the history of the L.A. Aqueduct and looking at the future of L.A.'s water resources. View the whole series


The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power usually uses careful language to talk about its relationship with the Owens Valley — cloaked in terms like "cooperation" and "partnership." But four years ago, acting general manager David Freeman's words were uncharacteristically naked.

“We own it – lock, stock, and barrel. Some people think we stole it!” he told KABC.

Drive up Highway 395, the backbone of Owens Valley, and you start to see what he's talking about. White pickup trucks with the agency's logo regularly cruise by. Signs for DWP facilities adorn the shoulder. 

And you meet locals reconciling the sometimes uncomfortable ties that bind the valley to L.A. On one hand, DWP's omnipresence is the result of the "water grab" 100 year ago that many residents lament. On the other hand, DWP has provided jobs to thousands of locals.

RELATED: LA Aqueduct at 100: Solar, not water, may be new battle in the Owens Valley

Benett Kessler understands that contradiction. She owns the radio station Sierra Wave that prides itself on "afflicting the comfortable."

"The comfortable being afflicted mostly are the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power," she said. “It’s not really a personal issue. ... We all know someone who works for the DWP.”

They greet each other in the grocery store, she says. It all calls to mind the old Warner Brothers cartoon, the one where Ralph E. Wolf and Sam Sheepdog drink coffee together before heading to work  — work, in their world, is trying to kill each other.

Still, DWP owns more than 95 percent of the valley’s private land. Kessler can’t help but acknowledge that L.A. leases property to ranchers and main street shopowners who rely on good relations with the city to earn a living. So even in Vons, she’s aware of the utility’s swagger.

“They’re ready to play to the bully, any time they want to. It doesn’t even have to be said anymore,” she says. “It’s understood that if we resist something they want, they’re going to try to just scrunch their boot right on our necks.”

DWP veteran Brian Tillemans agrees the valley's memory is long. He'd know: He's worked here 32 years. An engineer and ecologist, Tillemans must keep the stream ecology of the valley healthy. And his job is getting harder: less water enters the aqueduct, and more stays in the valley to serve diverse ecological mandates and economic interests. That means he has to keep his cool.

“My wife always complains it’s really hard for me to go out and just have Mexican food and a cold beer without somebody coming and asking a question,” he says. “And so it’s a little hard to separate my social life from my work life.”

A fair trade?

But Tillemans calls it a fair trade. In exchange, he gets a backyard bounded only by the Sierra Nevadas on one side and the White Mountains on the other. Hunting and fishing. Hiking and packing. Camping and biking.

And he’s not the only DWP employee to revel in outdoors activities. Bobbie Stryffeler-Bornmann works as a clerk typist in DWP’s Bishop headquarters. Thirty years ago, she settled here, lured by Mammoth Mountain.

“I wanted to ski and be with Mr. Skiier, and we’re still married,” she laughs, adding that she’s switched from skiing to mountain biking “out of a sense of longetivity.”

As both a longtime local and a seven-year veteran of DWP, Stryffeler-Bornmann straddles the valley’s contradictions. She has immersed herself in valley life, training as a master gardener to spread the gospel of native plants, coaching the high school dance team for the DWP-sponsored mule days, and volunteering, like many people do, at community events.

All of which means that at the Looney Bean coffee house on Main Street, Stryffeler-Bornmann can’t even take a sip of cappuccino before a young woman approaches for a hug.

“We’re going to know everyone that walks by, you know,” she laughs, before explaining that the woman had gone to Bishop High School with her two daughters.

Even where DWP dried up the Owens Valley the most, in the southern part of Inyo County, people find a balance between the personal and the political.

Nancy Masters is a county librarian, whose parents brought her here in the Sixties. She calls the DWP an occupying force, but calls DWP employees, some anyway, “very fine people.”

“I think you have to distinguish between the folks that are paid to do their jobs and the direction that is given from the agency,” she says.

Those DWP jobs do pay well, and they’re competitive as a result. Tim Batchelder spent high school speeding along backroads and pulling friends’ trucks out of drainage ditches in Owens Valley. Now, he makes more than $130,000 a year as a DWP labor supervisor -- work more than satisfying for him and his crew.

“The majority of my guys are so grateful to be able to live here. This is, I know it’s a cliché. It’s God’s county here. Beautiful area," Batchelder says. "You get paid a city wage to live here, work here. And they know it.”

The price of living in this paradise is the baggage the words “City of Los Angeles” stenciled on their work trucks still bring -- a hundred years after the infamous "water grab."

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