posted Sept. 15. 2005

                  THE L. A. TIMES AND A KINDER, GREENER DWP?  

                             AN "OPEN LETTER" TO 


When asked to name the writer on Southern California who had the greatest 
influence in shaping my values, I pass over the more prominent names: John 
Caughey, Carey McWilliams, Kevin Starr and others.  I grew up in the pre-WWII 
Southland, and my literary hero was the latter-day muckraker, Morrow Mayo.  I 
was thirteen when I read his powerful environmental essay, "To See it Fall," a 
now forgotten plea for preservation of the giant Sequoias. Shortly after that 
I read his critical volume "Los Angeles," and I became forever a critic of the 
city's destruction of Owens Valley.

But not everyone holds that view. Attached prominently to the Los Angeles 
Times on Wednesday, Sept. 7, was a twelve page puff piece by the city's 
Department of Water and Power, extolling the role of William Mulholland and 
recounting the glory of DWP conservation and its greening of the environment. 
Most striking was the blatant pat-on-the-back on page five, "Restoring the 
Owens Valley."

The DWP would have you believe that it was their agency that originated and 
implemented the three restoration projects mentioned on that page: lower 
Owens River mitigation, Owens Lake dust mitigation and Owens River gorge 
restoration. Nowhere is there an indication that DWP, at times dominated by 
"environmentalists," including current board member Mary Nichols, fought those 
efforts tooth and nail.  Only fierce support for mitigation from those in the 
Owens Valley, and sound decisions by state judges, forced the city to comply.

But it isn't just in recent years that the DWP has balked at conservation, 
preservation and restoration.  Its whole history is a long litany of abuse of 
the land and residents east of the Sierra Nevada.  A century ago the city 
quietly acquired land titles and water rights in the Owens Valley, moved the 
national forest boundary around to its liking, and diminished the flow in 
Owens River, thereby drying up the lake.

Over the years it didn't really matter if "environmentalists" served on the 
water board or not.  In the 1920s the city's leading social reformer, John R. 
Haynes, and fellow reformer Clarence Dykstra, later the provost at UCLA, 
served on the board. But it was under them that many of the tragic episodes 
took place.

Decades later, under Democratic mayor Tom Bradley, self-proclaimed 
environmentalists controlled the DWP board. Mary Nichols, Mike Gage and 
Dorothy Green were all leaders in various environmental groups. Yet they 
continued to arouse the wrath of Owens Valley residents by their actions over 
the next few years. 

Actually the role of the five member board of directors of DWP is vastly 
overrated.  The real policy planning takes place at the staff level. 
Attorneys, engineers and managers determine the course that DWP will follow.  
Directors come and go, almost at will, but the staff remains.

DWP is an example of a self-directing bureaucracy.  Even John Haynes took the 
position that whatever LA did in the Owens Valley should not interfere with 
the city's water supply.  Having conceded that, Valley residents had little 
room to negotiate with DWP.

In the 1980s and `90s "liberal" Democratic legislators from Los Angeles, 
ostensibly friends of the environment, led an abortive effort to exempt the 
city from regulations that would alleviate the dust problem on the lake.  You 
would never know that reading the DWP's advertising supplement in the Times. 
And only a gubernatorial veto prevented the city from winning legislation that 
would remove ground water pumping from state regulation.

The resident "environmentalist" on the current DWP board, Mary Nichols, should 
have fought vigorously to prevent publication of that misleading supplement in 
the Times.  But nary a word in opposition reached the pages of the paper.  

The Times is equally at fault, refusing to run this op-ed rebuttal, claiming 
that it doesn't meet Times standards for quality, argument and timeliness. Nor 
has the Times been forthcoming in explaining who paid for the supplement and 
what the role of the paper was in preparing it.  

No doubt the Times made money by publishing the supplement.  Does that justify 
silence regarding a reasonable rebuttal?  Five years ago a scandal over a 
Staples Center supplement brought down the publisher at the Times when 
business considerations preempted editorial ethics. Has that happened again?

Morrow Mayo is out of sync with modern writers of Southern California history. 
Rather than publish self-serving supplements, the Times would do its readers a 
greater service by reprinting Mayo's "To See it Fall" and "The Rape of Owens 

[Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona, can be 
reached at]