Griffiths calls DWP water allotment proposal a “death blow to agriculture.”
Few can deny the severity of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) proposal to cut Owens Valley irrigation allotments by 66 percent this runoff year, from a typical average of about 49,000 acre-feet to just 16,500 acre-feet.
“If your plan goes through as it is, it’s going to be a deadly blow to agriculture in this valley,” said Supervisor Jeff Griffiths to LADWP Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta.
To make matters worse, on Monday, April 27, the night before the Inyo County Board of Supervisors water workshop intended to brainstorm solutions to the lack of water for ranchers and farmers, the LADWP sent a letter to lessees stating their water would be shut off on May 1.
That water shutoff might not be legal, per the rules of the 1991 Long-Term Water Agreement. The Water Agreement states that irrigation on lands watered in 1981 and 1982 must continue, but can be reduced by some “reasonable measure” if the Inyo County Board of Supervisors and LADWP agree on it, according to Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington.
Board Chair Matt Kingsley opened Tuesday’s water workshop with an announcement that the Board had authorized a letter in response to the LADWP, and had instructed County Counsel and Special Legal Counsel Greg James to initiate litigation to stop the LADWP irrigation water shutoff, if necessary.
Breaking news: after Inyo County threatened litigation at the water workshop the LADWP sent out a letter to lessees on Wedensday, April 29 stating their water would not be shut off on May 1. Whether the water might yet be shut off at a future date remains unclear.
Ranchers and farmers at Tuesday’s water workshop expressed fears about an end to their season’s irrigation allotment with only 48 hours’ notice. Even without the May 1 cutoff, many will still struggle to make ends meet for their summer growing season with the LADWP’s proposed 66 percent reduction.
“What is at stake here … is a limited supply of the most precious resource we have: water,” said alfalfa farmer Zach Smith. Smith said he has 1,500 acres of alfalfa pasture and native meadows. He argued that alfalfa uses no more water than any other vegetation in Owens Valley, given sprinkler irrigation has about 90 percent efficiency.
“I don’t export my alfalfa to China, Japan … or UAE,” Smith said to appreciative laughter. “My hay is sold locally,” and, when sold outside of the Valley, goes to a California farm that supplies Southern California.
“The Valley’s economy depends on these green areas,” Smith said.
Inyo-Mono Agricultural Commissioner Nate Reade expanded on Smith’s assertion, noting that the value of Owens Valley agriculture was about $7 million in 2013, the value of its livestock was about $12 million, and row crops were about $800,000. Reade said agriculture is responsible for about 100 local jobs.
If a 66 percent cut in water leads to a 66 percent loss in production, that would mean a loss of about $13 million a year, Reade said. But “It’s tough to estimate what the loss really is,” he added. “[Water cuts] affect different ranches differently, and ranches differently than farms.”
Reade did note that farming and ranching are highly dependent on the timing of irrigation. The May 1 shutoff would “essentially destroy all irrigation, and you may as well not do any at all that year.”
Cattle herds in particular have been hit by drought across the West. In the Owens Valley, Reade said herds declined by about 15 percent the last two years and are forecast to decline by another 12-15 percent this year.
Although that means a temporary financial boon for ranchers when the price of cattle rises due to low availability and high demand, “In the future, it’s going to be very difficult to build those herds back up,” Reade said.
LADWP Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta explained the May 1 shutoff as the result of the LADWP’s failure to anticipate the severity of this fourth year of drought. He said the LADWP could no longer afford to provide lessees with their water allotment, as it needed all remaining surface water for its many mitigation projects throughout the Owens Valley.
These include the Owens Lake dust mitigation project and the Lower Owens River Project (LORP), both of which are the result of litigation against the LADWP. Yannotta said failure to supply adequate water for these projects could result in lawsuits and, in the case of Owens Lake, fines of up to $10,000 a day.
But how could the LADWP have been caught so off-guard, given the prior three years of drought? Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington explained that while last year’s runoff for the Owens River Basin was only 52 percent of average—a record breaking low—this year will break that record, coming in at a projected 36 percent.
The first six months of the runoff year, from April to September, are anticipated at only 25 percent of average.
These kinds of lows “haven’t occurred since the aqueduct was in the Valley,” Harrington said.
As a result, the LADWP will not be exporting any water from the Owens Valley for the first six months of the runoff year, instead using water already stored in the Haiwee Reservoir to supply Los Angeles. When the LADWP does begin exporting water again, likely in November, it projects a total of 42,000 acre-feet, or 12 percent of its average export of 337,000. (Some questioned the necessity of this paltry export, however, when by November, L.A.’s irrigation season will also be over.)
Much of the water available from runoff and pumping will go to the Owens Valley rather than Los Angeles. In its 2015-16 Operations Plan, the LADWP projects a total of 124,000 acre-feet available for use in the Owens Valley. But that water must be divided between irrigation, stock water, enhancement and mitigation and recreation projects.
The LADWP has proposed reducing all of these uses except for water use on Owens Lake and in the LORP. Water at Owens Lake will increase from 53,700 to 60,700 acre-feet, while water in the LORP will increase from 15,900 to 16,900 acre-feet.
Not surprisingly, these two projects became a source of contention at Tuesday’s meeting.
“With the current, proposed plan, there is no drought on Owens Lake, and
no drought on the Lower Owens River,” one audience member contended.
Yannotta said Owens Lake water use will increase because the dust mitigation project is moving into several new phases.
But new Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD)Officer Phill Kiddoo said the LADWP may still be able to save water on Owens Lake. He pointed to 4.5 square miles of new tillage areas, former shallow-flood areas which have been dried out since January 1 of this year. (For those who might not know, tillage involves using tractors to turn moist lakebed clay into furrows and basketball-sized clods of dirt; it requires much less water than the traditional shallow flooding on Owens Lake.)
“The water saving is 8,700 acre-feet,” said Kiddoo. The LADWP will not be required to use any water on these areas unless they become emissive, and tillage areas can remain non-emissive for up to three years, Kiddoo said.
Kiddoo noted other transition areas that are using combinations of gravel and shallow flooding, as part of a shift in dust mitigation efforts on Owens Lake. “We’re finding that the 75 percent wetness requirement may be overkill,” he said. He added that GBUAPCD and the LADWP are testing out new methods that will continue through the next dust year.
In addition, a new Dynamic Water Management Plan will allow the LADWP to push back water use in shallow flooding areas in the spring and fall, with the potential for immediate water savings on the Lake.
LADWP Civil Engineering Associate Eric Tillemans said there might also be potential savings from the LORP. He said the 14,300 acre-feet used in the LORP last year was “extraordinarily low;” some years about 90,000 acre-feet run through the LORP. This year that number is projected to be 15,300.
But cuts to certain flows could save about 4,300 acre-feet; cuts to the Black Rock water fowl management area could save about 1,500 acre-feet, and reduced flows overall, while of less benefit, could save about 1,000 acre-feet.
Some attendees expressed frustration that the LADWP wasn’t considering more cuts to its exports, but instead forcing Owens Valley residents to further divide water use in the Owens Valley.
“Haiwee’s full; they already took all the water they need, and they left the crumbs for us to fight over,” argued Harry Williams of the Bishop Paiute Tribe.
Others worried that the LADWP could be using the drought as an excuse to cut water use for Owens Lake and other mitigation projects.
“We were in the midst of a six-year drought when we entered into the Water Agreement,” said Sally Manning. “In a dry year, these hard-won victories established requirements that are supposed to stay in place.”
“I can’t see how they can pull water off the Lake and still maintain the public trust and habitat,” said Andrew Warren.
But ranchers and farmers argued that irrigated lands are also habitat for wildlife, and that their lands, if not irrigated, might also pose dust hazards. Nancy Masters of the Owens Valley Committee agreed: “If the ranchers go bankrupt, I assume the City [of Los Angeles] will take over spreading the water on those lots. Less water will be spread,” she said.
In fact, one theory posited by Owens Valley residents is that the LADWP would like the see ranchers and farmers go out of business; that way it can cut its water allotment obligation. Kiddoo acknowledged this theory, noting the LADWP could have requested an early ramp-down of water use on Owens Lake. The current deadline is May 15, and the LADWP will not resume watering the lake until October, he said.
But, he added, “I don’t believe this is a ‘Chinatown’ scenario, that they’re dumping water on the Lake to create a crisis.”
At the very least, LADWP lessee Tom Talbot wondered why the LADWP had slashed lessee allotments by 66 percent, then given them only a month to theoretically use one third of their average annual allotment.
Another workshop attendee acknowledged that lessees didn’t expect to receive even close to their average allotment. “We know everybody’s gonna take a hit, but we want it to be more equitable. This is ridiculous,” he said.
Former Board of Supervisors Chair Linda Arcularius suggested the Board reach out to Owens Lake landowners, the California State Lands Commission, to give the authorization for the LADWP and GBUAPCD to work together to cut water use in a drought year. Why not have a 25 percent reduction in water use on Owens Lake, per Governor Brown’s statewide Proclamation? she wondered. “I don’t understand why [Owens Lake] is the golden child out there that nobody can touch,” she said.
Ultimately Jim Yannotta concluded that if the State Commission Lands and GBUAPCD could relax the need for water on Owens Lake, “We could put that water toward irrigation.”
The Board concluded its five hour workshop with direction to write a letter to the State Lands Commission and GBUAPCD requesting up to 20,000 acre-feet water savings on Owens Lake, and to write another letter to LORP MOU partners to request changes to save water there as well.
The Board will continue to discuss potential solutions to the LADWP’s proposed water allotments at its next meeting on Tuesday, May 5.