Water has been a controversial issue for centuries in the Owens Valley, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. The valley has long been the home of the Paiute people, who dug ancient irrigation ditches to water their desert home.
So lush was the valley that in the early 20th century, Los Angeles came and diverted most of the water to quench the growing city's thirst.
The water diversions to Los Angeles sparked a fiery controversy and as partial compensation for the 19th Century appropriation of Native lands, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) agreed in 1939 to set aside land for three small reservations — in Big Pine, Bishop, and Lone Pine — as an incentive to get the Paiute off land the Department desired for its water rights. The agreement stipulated that the reservations would receive a guaranteed annual allotment of 5,565 acre-feet of water for irrigation purposes.
Last year, in Big Pine, a broken irrigation pipe on Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power land meant that not even half of their scheduled water was received. The pipe, located on LADWP land, was leaking and there was no resolution for months — to the frustration of both sides.
But after months of back and forth, the issue was finally addressed in March 2017 at a LADWP Board of Commissioners meeting.
“Everyone [from the tribe] spoke about not having irrigation water, and how it was damaging to food growing and a variety of other things,” says Jill Paydon, Tribal Administrator of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe.
Moved by the stories of the tribal members, Commissioner Christina Noonan offered to cut a personal check to the tribe.
“As a long standing LADWP commissioner, I am clearly aware of the community-collective commitments, promises and obligations relating to water distribution and equity within our Californian constituents,” Noonan says. “Although I am astute to legalities in this realm and the bureaucracy this typically entails, I, as an individual and mother, could no longer withstand the idea of Big Pine Tribe not having available water to bathe their children nor grow food for their families.”
The day after the Board of Commissioners’ meeting, the Big Pine Paiute Tribe was contacted by a LADWP representative who said DWP wanted to fix the pipe. (The utility company did not take Noonan’s money.)
Within less than a month, the system was repaired and ready.
“They did a great job,” Paydon says.
Still, tensions remain. The Big Pine tribe has sent an invoice tor the LADWP for the loss of irrigation water during 2016 totaling 1.26 million dollars, which they note is half the value of undelivered water based on what the DWP charges their customers.
They have yet to receive a response.
“LADWP continues to work jointly, along with the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, to resolve the underlying matters of pipeline ownership, operation and maintenance responsibilities, and rights of access,” says Amanda Parsons, a spokesperson for the LADWP. “Achieving this resolution will best serve both the Big Pine Paiute Tribe and LADWP in the future as we both have a clear understanding of our expectations and obligations.”
Banner: An overgrown Paiute irrigation ditch, Clarissa Wei photo.