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Arrested development: Landlord DWP stalls county’s efforts to make critical airport repairs

By Katie Licari
Cracks and crumbled asphalt of an airport taxiway with snow-capped mountains in the background.
The Inyo mountains overlook one of the taxiways at the Lone Pine Airport. Due to lease issues, maintenance for the airport has been delayed, impacting local air ambulance services. Dana Amihere/AfroLA

This article is reported by AfroLA and co-published by AfroLA, Guardian US and Inyo County's The Sheet The Sheet. It’s the second of several stories examining the impact of Los Angeles’s extensive landownership in the Owens Valley. You can read the first one here

Two rural California airports that are crucial to local air ambulance services, firefighting efforts and search and rescue operations are unable to perform critical repairs, blocked by an agency 300 miles away: the city of Los Angeles.

The airports are two of several major pieces of infrastructure in California’s Owens Valley that are left in disrepair because of LA policies, an investigation by AfroLA, the Sheet and the Guardian reveals.

Los Angeles has owned large swathes of Inyo County, where the Owens Valley is located, for more than a century. With ownership of the land comes rights to its water – water that is key to servicing the thirsty metropolis of 3.8 million people. Aqueducts carrying water from Inyo and neighbouring Mono county to LA provided 73% of the city’s water supply last year.1

The city of Los Angeles swooped in in the early 1900s, at the dawn of what became known as California’s water wars. As the city of Los Angeles exponentially grew in the early 1900s, its leaders searched for ways to sustain that population. In Owens Valley, they found what LA did not: plenty of water.

Over the next decades, LA agents secretly, and aggressively, worked to buy up land in the valley and take ownership of the water rights that came with those parcels. By 1933, Los Angeles DWP had gobbled up 85% of all town properties in the area.

Today, DWP owns 90% of private land in Inyo County, which encompasses the Owens Valley. (The federal government is the biggest landowner, owning the land for Death Valley National Park and Inyo National Forest). The agency also owns 30% of the land in neighboring Mono County. Aqueducts running through both counties provided 395,000 acre-feet tons of water to LA last year, equivalent to 73% of the city’s water supply.

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Today the Los Angeles department of water and power (DWP) owns 90% of privately-available land in Inyo County, the majority of which it leases back to the county, its residents, business owners and ranchers.

But in recent years, county officials say, DWP has refused their applications for renewing long-term leases, including those for the land that includes county airports, landfills and campgrounds.

An analysis of tax records shows nearly every DWP lease held by Inyo County is expired. More than 60% of leases between the county and DWP have been expired for more than a decade, and half of those have been expired since the aughts.

Without these long term leases, the officials say, the county cannot apply for state and federal funding that supports critical infrastructure work. With under 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, former Inyo County Administrative Officer.

Failure to launch

Three of Inyo County’s small airports sit on a combination of DWP easements and leases. There’s the Independence airport, which is primarily used by the US Bureau of Land Management to fight wildfires in the Eastern Sierra. The Lone Pine airport provides air ambulance services for the southern part of the county, and search and rescue for Mt. Whitney and Death Valley. And then there’s the Eastern Sierra Regional Airport located in Bishop, the only commercial one in the county (The county’s fourth airport, Shoshone Airport, is located on the other side of Death Valley near the border with San Bernardino county).

Both the Lone Pine and Independence airports sit in various states of disrepair, their maintenance hampered by DWP lease terms.

“Right now, there have been cracks on that taxiway that certainly could pose a safety risk,” Ashley Helms, Inyo County’s deputy director of public works, said about Independence. She described how landing gear can get stuck and break off in a four-inch crack. “Right now, we’re filling cracks like that by hand with cold mix asphalt,” she said.

At Lone Pine, there are cracks in one taxiway and there’s extensive damage to a second.

California state law requires landlords to maintain their properties, but DWP leases have a specific carveout stipulating that leaseholders are the ones in charge of maintaining the property.

For a rural county like Inyo to be able to do that, it needs federal and state grants to pay for infrastructure work. But to qualify for grant funding, counties must prove they have tenure of the land for the length of the life of the project. A new taxiway or road requires 20 years, a new building is 50 years. Time to plan, permit, and procure contracts for the project can also add years required for the lease.

“We are hoping to do a taxiway rehabilitation project [at Independence airport] in 2025, funded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). But that will require an updated and extended lease from DWP,” said Helms.

A renewed lease probably won’t come soon, though. State law requires DWP lessees the right of first refusal of lease renewals – effectively guaranteeing lease renewals, but county officials say DWP has failed to process the paperwork to renew the lease for the Independence airport. When this happens, leases are in holdover status, meaning the lease isn’t technically active, but tenants continue to make payments month to month.

Los Angeles DWP did not respond to a detailed request for comment from AfroLA. DWP’s Eastern Sierra division also did not respond to a request for comment.

The situation in Lone Pine is similar. The main taxiway and two taxiways are built on an active DWP lease, but it’s expiring soon. The county’s public works department has a project planned to fix cracks on one of the taxiways before the lease expires. The other more damaged taxiway needs more extensive work that would require a new lease.

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If Lone Pine were to close, Helms said, search and rescue efforts in the region would be massively impacted. Because of the high elevation, search and rescue flights to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US, often have to refuel 10 times during an operation. “If [search crews] had to come all the way to Bishop either to refuel or pick people up, that would be a huge impediment,” Helms said.

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Lone Pine airport is also important for [local] emergency medical services, she said. There is a small hospital in Lone Pine, but it is considerably smaller than the one in Bishop or facilities in larger cities across the state. “Anything serious does need to be flown out,” said Helms. “It’s a pretty bumpy ride.”

The Eastern Sierra Regional airport in Bishop has had its own struggles with DWP. In the early 2000s, Inyo county began negotiations with DWP to convert the airport’s lease to an easement, which would give the county the permanent land tenure that is required to qualify for FAA grants.

The negotiations went on for years, and, according to the local newspaper, the Inyo Register, then-DWP board president Dominick Rubaclava presented DWP’s position as such in 2004: “more water, new lease.” Deliver more water to LA, and you’ll get your lease. In 2010, nearly a decade after the county began the talks, their petition was granted. Rubaclava declined to comment on his 2004 remarks.

Securing the Eastern Sierra Regional airport easement allowed the county to clear a backlog of maintenance and safety projects. Pursuing an easement for the other airports, particularly Lone Pine which has had to cease nighttime operations of its air ambulance services until lighting upgrades can be done, would mean the county would never need to worry about land tenure again and could be more responsive to maintenance issues, county officials said.

A vicious fight

Other infrastructure and planning projects have faced similar roadblocks.

All but one of Inyo County’s parks and campgrounds have expired leases.2 That meant county officials could not apply for funding from Proposition 68, a 2018 ballot measure that allocated a quarter billion dollars to parks statewide, including $23.1 million to rural communities for campgrounds.

While she was Inyo's County Administrative Officer, Leslie Chapman tried to negotiate an extension to the park leases directly with DWP. But, the department refused to either renew or extend the lease, she said. “A lot of our tourists are from LA. And, it's just so frustrating,” said Chapman.

In 2020, the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority, the public transit system that provides service from Lancaster to Reno, obtained a $457,000 federally-funded grant to build a new administration and dispatch center on its bus yard that would serve the Eastern Sierra region, according to a copy of the grant obtained by AfroLA. The grant would cover more than 78% of the new building’s cost.3

State and federal grant regulations require land tenure for around 50 years for a new building. But ESTA’s bus yard is located on an expired sublease at the airport. That means the county cannot use the grant money and will be forced to give it back at the end of this year. In the meantime, the county is renting a trailer out of pocket – at a cost of $45,000 per year. In 12 years, the portable trailer will have cost as much as the administration building designed to last 50 years.

“It’s a poor use [of public funds] to rent this facility when we could have just built one,” said Phil Moores, the head of ESTA.

Moores said ESTA’s building project is a victim of the deterioration of the relationship between the county and DWP in the aftermath of a series of lawsuits over the county’s landfills.

The cloud-covered Sierras overlook the shells of broken down cars in the Bishop dump.
The cloud-covered Sierra Nevada overlook the Bishop Dump which was the subject of an eminent domain lawsuit. Dana Amihere/AfroLA

Inyo County operates five landfills, three of which are on DWP land and two of whose leases expired in 2009 (Bishop’s had an active lease in 20174 when the lawsuit was filed, Lone Pine and Independence are still in holdover status.)5 Starting in 2013, the three landfills have racked up hundreds of inspection violations for exceeding their daily capacity6. CalRecycle advised in January 2013 to expand the daily tonnage allowance at the dumps to prevent future violations7. The county has argued that that issue can only be fixed with an active, and expanded lease.

In February 2018, Inyo County tried to force DWP's hand, and filed an eminent domain suit against DWP, hoping to seize the land and associated water rights the landfills are on from the department through the courts and bring them under county ownership. DWP filed a countersuit, arguing Inyo County was not in a position to take ownership of the land because the county had not complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). LA also said it had concerns about the county’s operation of the landfills.

A vicious legal fight ensued. In a July 30, 2018 deposition, then-Inyo County Administrative Officer Kevin Carunchio said that on a call with multiple DWP officials, one of them threatened LA would “rain fire and fury”8 down on Inyo County if it pursued efforts to take back their land, including the water rights.

In 2022, an appeals judge agreed with LA: Inyo County had failed to comply with CEQA regulations. DWP kept ownership of the land, and the county was ordered to pay the city of LA more than $800,000 in attorney’s fees.

A complicated relationship

Inyo County’s problems, local leaders say, are exacerbated by its lack of revenue. “Most counties survive on property tax revenue, and we don't hardly have any property tax revenue,” said Jen Roeser, a DWP tenant and county supervisor. “There's only so much land you can build on which generates a minimal amount of property tax revenue.”

The biggest landowner in Inyo County is the federal government, which owns the land for Death Valley National Park and Inyo National Forest. The feds pay the county $2 million annually in lieu of taxes, 1.4% of the county’s revenue.

With 252,000 acres and a $20 million tax bill, DWP is the largest private landholder and taxpayer in the county. How to tax DWP’s land holdings in the Eastern Sierra prompted an entire chapter in the state constitution, which establishes a separate taxing system called the Phillips Factor. This means the base value of DWP’s landholdings was fixed at 1966, and the value of the land has not been reassessed since.

While Inyo County has an at-times volatile relationship with DWP, the agency also has its defenders in the region.

They argue LA’s extensive landownership has shielded the region from development. Additionally, they say, DWP stimulates local economies as Inyo County’s largest employer, providing hundreds of well-paying jobs with good benefits for local residents, including multigenerational families who live in the county but work for the city of Los Angeles. The department has a longstanding relationship with ranchers in the region, generally offering them land at lower prices than other utilities.

A man stands for a portrait next to the Bishop City Hall Sign, an empty street and Sierra Nevada mountains in the background.
Inyo County Supervisor Jeff Griffiths outside Bishop City Hall. Dana Amihere/AfroLA

“In the past, it has been a mutually-beneficial relationship, to provide services for the whole community in that the city of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power needs these services. And their workers are members of our community, and constituents of the city of Bishop and Inyo County,” said County Supervisor and DWP leaseholder Jeff Griffiths.

But, Griffiths added, “In the recent past, [DWP] has been very difficult to work with, and has not been renewing leases or has made it extremely difficult, or put very onerous terms to those leases.”

This investigation was supported with funding from the Data-Driven Reporting Project. The Data-Driven Reporting Project is funded by the Google News Initiative in partnership with Northwestern University | Medill.

The stories are the result of more than two years of records requests, interviews and data analysis by AfroLA. Guardian US provided assistance as a co-publishing partner in the editing, production and promotion of this story. Collaboration and co-publication with the Mammoth Sheet helped ensure that Owens valley residents have ready access to news that directly affects their lives and communities. Thank you to the many people who made reporting and sharing this story possible.

Are you an Owens Valley resident with a story to share? Have a tip regarding DWP? We want to hear from you. Visit our Contact page for details on how to call/text/message us. You can also email or leave an anonymous message on our online voicemail line.

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Author Katie Licari
Katie Licari (she/her/hers) is a proud community college graduate and UC Berkeley alum who loves covering diverse communities and local political power in Southern California through a data-driven lens. When she is not coding, you can find her tending to her garden or reading with her cats.


For AfroLA
For Guardian US
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  • Will Craft, Data editor
  • Andrew Witherspoon, Data editor
  • Thalía Juárez, Photo editor
  • Matt Cantor, Copy editor