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

This 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

East of Highway 395, the sun rises over the reddish-brown Inyo Mountains. And it sets behind the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevadas. In between and 10,000 feet below, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power wants to put 1 million solar panels on the flat of Owens Valley.

The idea is to solve a growing problem for the utility: L.A. has invested in a big transmission line up to the valley, but these days it's not carrying all the power it can.

For as long as water has flowed through the L.A. Aqueduct, DWP engineers have used it to generate power at hydroelectric plants. In recent decades, environmental rules have curtailed the amount of water L.A. can take from the valley. That’s where Randy Howard, DWP’s director of power planning, comes in.

“Well, people think we lost some water,” he says. That’s not all. “We lost hydroelectric power. We lost the ability to generate electricity through those plants.”

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

But that infrastructure is paid for, so as hydropower dims, DWP's focus has switched to solar. At that elevation, the Owens Valley’s sun is perfect. 

“The sun is 20 percent better up there even than it is in L.A., and we know it’s pretty good in L.A.,” former general manager David Freeman told KABC in 2009.

The DWP has plans to cover two square miles of the valley floor north of Lone Pine with solar panels — a project called the Southern Inyo County Solar Ranch. The panels would generate 200 megawatts, 1.5 percent of the city’s current demand.

A similar project is also on the drawing board for an area near Owens Dry Lake.

Howard says it's all part of a DWP strategy to get solar power from diverse locations – including in the L.A. basin.

“We want to optimize the amount of solar in the City of L.A.,” Howard says. “But if you had all of your resources in the city, and it was an overcast day, the lights wouldn’t stay on.” More locations mean more reliability. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the plans have sparked opposition.

“They’re looking here first. They should be looking here last,” said Daniel Pritchett with the Owens Valley Committee, an activist group that has long opposed the DWP’s use of valley resources.

“In the past they’ve exploited us for water, because, they argued, well they used up most of their own,” he said. “Now they’re exploiting us for sunshine. But they haven’t begun to use up their own sunshine. It’s just cheaper to come here.”

Pritchett shades his eyes over the proposed site. Settlers and ranchers made their homes here in the 19th century. Pritchett says the solar ranch would industrialize the valley’s unspoiled beauty.

Spectacular wilderness

“The Inyos are spectacular wilderness, which looks right across this largely undisturbed landscape to the Sierra Nevadas, which is an equally spectacular wilderness,” he says. “They’re looking right across at you in the Inyos. And part of the reason it’s such a treasure is because you can go up there and have very few people with you.”

That solitude has historic value, says Les Inafuku, the superintendent for the nearby Manzanar National Historic Site. Manzanar preserves what’s left of an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. Inafuku says the isolation of the Owens Valley figured prominently into the government’s plans for the internees.

“The War Relocation Camp was actually placed here because it was undeveloped,” Inafuku says. “If we develop this area, it will be so much hard for visitors to get that understanding of why this place was selected in the first place.”

Inafuku, Pritchett and others are pressuring local officials to voice opposition to the ranch.

But Inyo County supervisor Matt Kingsley says options are limited. DWP owns nearly all private land in Inyo County, and the county’s zoning rules have limited reach. The city of Los Angeles would pay no revenue tax for additional development on the land it owns in the county.

“I don’t feel powerless, although sometimes I do feel like we’re working hard against a really big entity that we don’t have much influence on,” he says.

Still, Inyo Administrator Kevin Carunchio says the county has passed an ordinance to protect what power it does have over the project. And the county is negotiating to maximize its influence and its compensation.

But Carunchio expresses a familiar worry: that Owens Valley will again see a gold rush on its resources, and that DWP’s solar ranch is the camel’s nose under the tent, opening the way for bigger transmission lines to drain resources away from the valley.

“You really want to talk about the Owens valley being developed for full blown solar, you need to look at what’s going on with transmission capacity,” he says. “When those transmission lines being developed that’s the game changer.”

California is requiring more renewable energy from utilities, including the DWP, and those mandates are neutralizing local objections for solar developments elsewhere in the state. But the historic tensions between Owens Valley and Los Angeles -- born from the water wars of the last century -- could make this battle a little different.