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93 years later, L.A. returns some water

In Los Angeles, William Mulholland is remembered as the visionary who helped transform L.A. from a dusty desert town into a metropolis by building a 240-mile aqueduct in 1913 that brought water from the Sierra Nevada to the city.

In the Sierra Nevada's Owens Valley, though, he is bitterly regarded as the villain who stole farmers' water and drove them to ruin.

Today, after decades of legal battles, Los Angeles will make amends, in a modest way, for what Mulholland and the city did.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will turn a valve and raise a steel gate to send water spilling once more into a 62-mile stretch of the Owens River, which was a rushing stream generations ago before the aqueduct diverted its flow and reduced it to a pathetic trickle.

The farmers and ranchers who were ruined by the Los Angeles Aqueduct are long gone, and there is little hope the water will ever turn all of the scrubby, rocky landscape green again. But businesses hope the revitalized river will breathe life into the area's struggling towns by attracting more tourists.

"The water we took from the Owens Valley was emblematic of an era of pioneers and trailblazers that felt they had almost a God-given right to the resources and land in the West," Villaraigosa said.

The move is not expected to significantly affect Los Angeles' water supply or cost consumers anything extra. The water diverted represents only about one-twentieth of the amount originally in the Owens. And at the end of the stretch of river, the redirected water will reach a storage pond, where four huge pumps will send it back into the aqueduct and on its way to Los Angeles.

Around Owens Valley, old-timers still grumble about the way Los Angeles snapped up nearly all the land and water rights - sometimes by bribery and political chicanery.

Locals whose cattle ranches and apricot and apple farms were threatened with ruin responded by dynamiting the aqueduct, committing other acts of sabotage and engaging in armed standoffs that altogether became known as California's Water Wars.

The redirection of the water will come as a result of more than 30 years of legal battles waged by Inyo County officials, residents and environmentalists.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power finally agreed in 1997 to restore the river by 2003 but repeatedly pushed that deadline back until a judge imposed fines of $5,000 a day beginning last September. The judge said that if water did not flow by January 2007, Los Angeles would be barred from using a second aqueduct from the Owens Valley.