LADWP to turn off water for ranchers
The biggest private landowner in Inyo and Mono Counties, controlling more than 315,000 acres, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is offering ranchers new leases for pastureland in the Crowley Lake/Long Valley area, and at a discounted price—75 percent off. Those ranchers, some of whom have leased land from LADWP for more than a century, have been waiting for more than five years for new leases.
There’s a catch, though. There is no water included. LADWP is still asking lease holders to maintain the conditions of the land as they are now—green and lush—but now without water.
The new leases were mailed to ranchers in late February of this year.
Cattle, grass, and the Bi-State Sage Grouse depend on those pasture lands for food and nesting grounds, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Sage Grouse, a chicken-sized, high desert-dwelling bird, narrowly escaped an Endangered Species listing thanks to the efforts of both environmentalists and ranchers, who act as stewards of the land.
The prime nesting ground for the birds in Southern Mono County are those same leased pasturelands that may soon go fallow.
Matt Kemp, President of the Inyo/Mono Cattlemen’s Association, stated in a letter to Mono County Supervisors on April 3 that over 15,000 acres will be affected. Inyo/Mono Agricultural Commissioner Nate Reade told the BOS at its April 3 meeting the economic impact could total between $2.7 million and $8 million. Livestock accounts for 44.6 percent, or $13,390,000, of the $31,242,200 total agricultural activity in Mono County, according to “Agriculture in Inyo and Mono Counties: an Economic Profile,” published in 2017.
Well-watered pasture land is considered a commodity and is 90 times more valuable than rangeland, Reade told The Sheet in a separate interview on Monday, April 2.
“There’s millions of dollars at stake,” said Reade.
Mark Lacey, rancher and Vice President of the Inyo/Mono Cattlemen’s Association, said his herd has declined by 70 percent in the last five years, and that he won’t be able to bring those numbers up without a place to accommodate that growth. For Lacey, the waterless leases will translate into 500 fewer cattle and one less employee.
Reade explained that during historic drought conditions, local cattle were taken out of state to more fertile pastures. Those cattle will not return to the Eastside.
Lacey has been moving cattle to Oregon and greener pastures during the drought years, but transportation is too expensive to make it worth the trip, he said. He also owns land in Northern Mono County he can use as pasture, but this is an option many ranchers don’t have.
Those ranchers will cut their herd through attrition or other means. “There’s not a lot of other opportunities,” Lacey said.
The region saw a 56 percent reduction of agriculture value during the drought years, from 2012 to 2015. That value rose 14 percent in 2016 after record precipitation, but it would take several wet winters to restore the land and the size of the herd, said Reade. If the water is cut off, there may never be a comeback, he said.
A single acre of irrigated land can sustain more than 300 head of cattle, according to Reade. Without water, that number drops to 50.
If precipitation levels remain at or above normal, the lack of irrigation water may be tolerable. However, Lacey pointed out that in the last 17 years, only four have had excessive runoff.
LADWP lessees also have leases with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and those leases will not be affected. But the base of operations for the ranchers are all on the LADWP leased land.
LADWP was unavailable for comment.
Ranchers are stewards of the land they lease; performing the irrigation that keeps those lands healthy for both their business and for LADWP.
“I can’t imagine what it would cost DWP to have to do it,” Reade said.
Reade quoted the water company from an LADWP Eastern Sierra Commitment and Issues report from April 2006: “Ranchers are stewards helping bring quality water to Los Angeles.”
LADWP is bound by the Long-Term Water Agreement to control the carcinogenic dust on the Owens Dry Lake. Inyo County Water Director Bob Harrington told The Sheet that in 2014-15, LADWP spread 53,700 acre-feet of water on the dusty lake near Lone Pine. In 2015-16, the projected usage amount was 58,700 acre-feet.
Rancher, lessee, and President of the Inyo/Mono Cattlemen’s Association Matt Kemp said LADWP allots approximately 30,000-acre feet of water to Long Valley through lease agreements. He said 80-90 percent of that water returns to the aquifer.
Reade explained leases have usually always included a minimum of five acre-feet per year for ranchers, allowing for some water for stock to drink. He called the new leases “fundamentally flawed” because they are leases for pastureland that require water.
“With so many environmental regulations, you’d think it would be difficult to dry up 6,000-acres permanently,” Lacey asked.
He said it’s going to take the environmental community to put pressure on Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to include water with the leases.