Water is an important resource and all too often it is taken for granted. We all expect water to be there when we need to do the dishes, take a shower, or rinse our food. While a renewable resource, only 3% of the world’s supply is fresh water and unfortunately, demand already surpasses supply. What happens when there isn’t enough water to go around and communities begin to battle over who the water belongs to? Here is a story about a contemporary water war in California.
On January 6, 2012, the City of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against the Mammoth Lakes Water District (MLWD) claiming ownership of Mammoth Creek. The lawsuit asserts that residents of Mammoth Lakes, CA do not have the right to use water from Mammoth Creek, the Town’s only reliable water supply, for drinking or any other domestic uses.
The lawsuit was filed after MLWD completed a sustainable creek fishery management plan which proposed using water from Mammoth Creek to support a 50% increase in water use by Mammoth Lakes’ 7,900 residents (and thousands of tourists) by 2030. Los Angeles believes that the plan factors in water that Mammoth Lakes has no right to use. In the early 1900’s, Los Angeles water czar, William Mulholland, purchased nearly all of the private land in the county, in an effort to secure the water rights.
The Town of Mammoth Lakes, a small municipality with an urban growth boundary of 4 square miles, lies approximately 300 miles to the east of Los Angeles. Despite it’s size, the town is the only incorporated village in Mono County and is home to roughly 60% of the county’s population. According to Marty Adams, Director of Operations for the L.A. Department of Water and Power, “The citizens of Los Angeles depend on flows from Mammoth Creek, and the L.A. Department of Water and Power has a responsibility for protecting the city's water rights.”
Both sides dispute the claims of the other and appear to be at a standstill. The Department of Water and Power has offered to temporarily hold off pursuing the lawsuit if the Mammoth Community Water District negotiates a solution acceptable to Los Angeles.
How long should legal claims to natural resources remain upheld? What happens when communities sell their rights to resources during an economic upswing or resource rich period only to realize later that they need it?
What water wars are you familiar with and what lessons can we as architects, engineers, environmental non-profits, and urban planners learn from them as we develop sustainable management strategies for the future?
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