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L.A. Drained The Owens Valley Of Its Water, Now The Valley Is Fighting To Reclaim Its Land

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Inyo County officials have launched eminent domain proceedings to reclaim the land of three landfill sites in the county owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The landfills are operated by Inyo County, but sit on LADWP-owned land. The move is the latest in a series of legal actions the region has taken against Los Angeles since the city began buying up swaths of land in the Owens Valley for water rights in the early 1900s.

"We're still in pre-condemnation steps," Marshall Rudolph, county counsel for Inyo County, told LAist. "And that includes things like offering to purchase the property." Should the pre-condemnation process turn out to be unsuccessful for the county, it will move into the actual eminent domain filing, which is a court process, noted Rudolph.

The three landfill sites are in Bishop, Independence (the county seat), and Lone Pine. According to the Los Angeles Times, the decision to move into eminent domain proceedings followed a fourfold rent increase by the DWP over the Bishop site.

"It wasn't just [the rent increase]," Rudolph continued. "Richard Benson, who is the assistant county administrator running the solid waste program, gave a presentation to the county board in December outlining all the various problems we had with the rent situation."

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The Times adds that negotiations throughout 2016 between Inyo County and the DWP over the site resulted in a three-year renewal of the lease. "We had no choice,” Benson told the Times. “We’re mandated by the state to provide environmentally sound means of disposal. But the cost of abandoning that landfill and building and certifying a new one elsewhere would be astronomical.”

“The new lease rate for Inyo County’s Bishop Sunland Landfill has been established to reflect appropriate costs for leasing and activity on this type of facility in 2017," James Yannotta, Manager of the Los Angeles Aqueduct for LADWP, noted in a statement, reports The Sheet. "From 1990 to today the lease rate has been essentially unchanged. In 26 years the lease rate only went up one time ($140 per year)." He added that the rate increase will only kick in during the third year of the lease.

"We think we'll be successful. We're pretty confident," Rudolph told LAist about the eminent domain proceedings.

The move is just the latest in a series of legal battles the county has waged against DWP. Through the mid-1970s, the county filed a lawsuit against the department seeking an environmental impact report for the increased groundwater pumping actions taken by DWP to fill a second aquifer. In 1997, an agreement between DWP and the Owens Valley's Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District has resulted in the department spending over $1.2 billion to control noxious dust from the dried up Owens Lake. According to the Sacramento Bee, it is the largest dust control project in U.S. history, and has been successful in reducing dust pollution by about 90%.

The Times reports that DWP owns about 25% of the Owens Valley floor.