Given the unprecedented nature of the current drought, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) announced this week in its draft 2015-16 Operations Plan that it will not be exporting any water from the Owens Valley into Los Angeles during the first half (April-September) of the 2015-16 runoff year. LADWP Aqueduct Manager James Yannotta said exports likely won’t occur until November of this year.
The LADWP does still plan to export 42,400 acre-feet from the Owens Valley by the end of the 2015-16 runoff year, the smallest amount ever delivered to Los Angeles.
For comparison, water exports from the Eastern Sierra to Los Angeles have averaged about 337,000 acre-feet since 1970. The last two years have averaged between 60,000-70,000, and only 1990, with an export of about 99,000, comes close to these drought year exports.
The LADWP will also be pumping about 70,000 acre-feet of groundwater this 2015-16 runoff year. That’s a little more than 2014-15s 65,000 acre-feet, but still “very modest pumping, compared to past droughts,” said Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington.
Harrington noted that the LADWP has never pumped this little in a drought. In fact, the LADWP was still pumping an average of 136,000 acre-feet in the 1976-77 drought, and about 148,000 acre-feet from 1987-1991.
In comparison, the LADWP has dropped pumping to an average of about 78,500 for the past three years.
The LADWP will divide water remaining in the Owens Valley between its many projects and obligations, such as the Lower Owens River Project (LORP), mitigation on Owens Lake, and irrigation.
Last year the LADWP used about 53,700 acre-feet for mitigation efforts on Owens Lake; this year it expects to use about 60,700. Owens Lake mitigation accounts for about half of the LADWP’s local water take.
Most distressing to locals, the LADWP announced that it will cut the water allotment for irrigation in the Owens Valley by 66 percent. While the LADWP typically supplies about 48,000 acre-feet for irrigation, this year it’s proposing only 16,500 acre-feet.
“This is a huge hit on the irrigators,” said Harington. Irrigators lease LADWP land for their cattle and crops, and as part of each lease, receive a water allocation.
“I talked to several leasees yesterday who said, ‘Well, it looks like I’ll be going out of business,’” Harrington said.
According to Harrington, the LADWP is arguing that because its other in-Valley water uses are legal obligations—the LORP, and mitigation on Owens Lake, are both the result of litigation—it has to cut the water it supplies to irrigation lessees to compensate.
Inyo County Board members expressed their concern on Tuesday about the 66 percent cut to irrigation, but also their realism about what might be necessary with a fourth year of severe drought.
“Of course we are concerned about the unprecedented drought conditions we are experiencing today, and specifically the proposed two thirds irrigation reduction for ranchers proposed by the City’s Operations Plan, but we also realize the dire need to address the big picture, in public, with all stakeholders,” said Supervisor Matt Tillemans. “It’s likely the drought will continue, and it would be a huge mistake if we don’t plan for the worst.”
Supervisor Tillemans and Chair Matt Kingsley noted that the Inyo County Board of Supervisors will hold a workshop to discuss the LADWP Operations Plan next Tuesday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. in the Board of Supervisors room in Independence. The County has 10 days to respond to the Operations Plan; the LADWP must then meet with the County’s Technical Group representatives within 10 days of the receipt of the County’s comments to resolve the County’s concerns.
Harrington said the discussion on Tuesday “will be about community priorities for allocating water in the Owens Valley. Is there a legal and publicly desirable way to reallocate water for uses in the Valley?”
Chair Kingsley said the Board is inviting Memorandum of Understanding partners, LADWP, ranchers, tribes, and local environmental groups “to provide input and help shape a plan to get through the summer months … We need engagement and cooperation from the public, stakeholders, and local government to ensure that as we plan for the near future, we also design policy and actions that recognize the possibility of continued drought conditions.”
Kingsley emphasized that the LADWP too will be cutting its water use. “Everyone has to realize that there is so little water that all water users will be affected,” he said.
Currently the LADWP is predicting runoff in the Owens Valley will be about 25 percent of average for April-September, yielding only 76,000 acre-feet. The average for 1961-2010 is 303,903 acre-feet, according to the LADWP.
Harrington also noted at the April 21 Inyo County Board of Supervisors meeting that the LADWP’s runoff forecast for the next 12 months is at 36 percent of normal, assuming normal precipitation in summer, fall, and winter. That would be the lowest runoff in the record, kept since 1935.
The previous record low was 50 percent of normal—that record occurred last year.
Although some are becoming desensitized to news of drought, Harrington stressed that this year isn’t just more of the same. 36 percent is “off the charts in terms of drought severity, even compared to last year.”