How L.A. Wreaks Havoc in a County 250 Miles Away

Over 100 years ago, Los Angeles began purchasing land and water rights in Inyo County’s Owens Valley. By 1928, Los Angeles owned 90% of privately available land in Inyo, along with its water rights. Today, the counties of Inyo and Mono supply 73% of L.A.’s water.

Most of the land purchased by the L.A. Department of Water and Power is leased back to residents and businesses in the region. But according to Inyo, L.A. has been letting those leases sunset without renewal. An investigation by AfroLA and Guardian US found that 60% of leases between Inyo and the DWP expired more than a decade ago.

Without these long-term leases, the officials say, the county cannot apply for state and federal funding that supports critical infrastructure work. With fewer than 20,000 residents and a limited tax base, the county does not have the funds to bankroll those projects itself.

“We have a landlord that is stonewalling us on the leases, and making it impossible for us to do improvements,” said Leslie Chapman, a former Inyo county administrative officer.

As a result, three local airports — Independence Airport, the Lone Pine Airport, and the Eastern Sierra Regional Airport — are becoming dilapidated. Some have cracks on the runway big enough to pose a safety risk for landing planes. Inyo officials say they can’t apply for the grants to fix them without a current, updated lease. The airports are critical because they’re used by aircraft that fight wildfires and perform search and rescue missions.

A similar problem is playing out at county landfills that sit on DWP property. Three of them have been cited for violations by the state, which advises that they must expand capacity. Inyo says it can’t increase the landfills’ tonnage without an active lease.

Inyo has tried suing the DWP under eminent domain to reclaim the land those landfills are on. So far, the courts have sided with L.A. Former Inyo county administrative officer Kevin Carunchio said a DWP official once threatened “fire and fury” if the county ever seriously tried to reclaim its land and water rights.

The relationship between DWP and the county is complex. The agency is Inyo’s largest employer and revenue supplier. It has never faced major opposition because of the benefits it provides. If local infrastructure continues to deteriorate, that could change.