About a century ago, agents from Los Angeles — disguised as ranchers and farmers — quietly began purchasing land in Owens Valley that held water rights. Soon, residents of Inyo County found most of their water rights now belonged to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (“DWP”).  DWP imports the water to Los Angeles via the Los Angeles Aqueduct, leaving much of the Owens Valley without sufficient water.  This surreptitious acquisition of water rights in fact famously served as the foundation of the movie Chinatown, though the movie is reportedly a fictionalized version of the events that took place.


For years, Inyo County has taken various measures to try to address the situation, with little relief.  Now, Inyo County is launching eminent domain proceedings against DWP in an effort to acquire property from DWP and rectify the dark moment in its history.


Eminent domain is the right of a government or its agents to take private property for public use, with payment of just compensation. Typically, most eminent domain cases involve the government acquiring property from private owners or businesses.


In this case, the county government is seeking to acquire land from another governmental entity. While somewhat unusual, it is by no means the first time one government entity has sought to take property from another government entity.  It happens on occasion, and when it does, government agencies on the receiving end of the eminent domain action are put in essentially the same position private property owners find themselves when faced with eminent domain proceedings.  In fact, this firm has been hired by a number of public agencies when they found themselves faced with an eminent domain taking by another public agency.


This is, however, the first time that Inyo County has used eminent domain against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP).  DWP owns 25% of the Owens Valley floor. Previous water wars have focused on environmental and economic damage to the county.


“We’re using a hammer the DWP has never seen before in Owens Valley,” Inyo County Supervisor Rick Pucci was quoted saying in the LA Times. “Our goal is the future health and safety of our communities.”


The county seeks to pay “fair-market” value for the needed property along a 122-mile stretch of highway 296, which would be used for landfills, parks, commerce, and ranchlands. They offered $522,000 for a 200-acre parcel, which DWP declined saying they had yet to complete their own assessment. In March, Inyo County Administrator, Kevin Carunchino, notified DWP of the county’s decision to condemn a landfill site and two other parcels in the towns of Independence and Lone Pine. This would set in motion legal proceedings that could lead to taking land from the DWP.


Inyo County officials see the land as an important step in taking back local control and will bring more economic opportunities. Many cities in Owens valley are struggling to survive since most of their land and water rights are owned by the DWP. The county began studying eminent domain after the DWP proposed a fourfold rent increase for a landfill in Bishop, which they leased from the DWP and had to accept because building a new landfill would be too costly.


Los Angeles is worried about giving land back, especially those with water rights. The city was caught off guard by the eminent domain actions.


While takings of private property and publicly owned property present many of the same issues, there is one major difference between the two.  That is, where the property sought to be acquired is already put to a public use, the taking entity must prove that its use is either “more necessary” or compatible with the use to which the property is already put in order to be allowed to proceed with eminent domain.  How this ultimately plays out in this case is anyone’s guess at this point.


If you are a property or business owner affected by eminent domain, you can learn more about your options by giving us a call at 866- EM-Domain.