Inyo County has initiated legal action to challenge the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s(LADWP) yearly groundwater plan for the Owens Valley, citing environmental concern for two specific areas between Independence and Lone Pine.
The County may not have initiated legal action had LADWP not proposed a surprising raise in overall groundwater pumping for the Owens Valley, from 78,248 acre-feet last year to 91,000 acre-feet this year. 91,000 acre-feet would be the highest level of groundwater pumping by LADWP since 1989.
The County initially hoped to convince LADWP to reduce that number to 68,510 acre-feet. Despite the County’s comments, LADWP stuck by the original number.
Now the County is focusing on two particular areas of impacted vegetation, which a Feb. 2011 Inyo County Water Department analysis suggested are negatively affected by groundwater pumping.
The two areas, around the Thibaut-Sawmill and Taboose-Aberdeen wellfields a few miles north of Independence, are home to alkaline meadows, which are dominated by salt grass and alkali sacaton. Out of concern for these areas, Inyo County is requesting that pumping be reduced from 17,200 to 12,800 acre-feet in Thibaut-Sawmill, and from 14,000 to 10,000 acre-feet in Taboose-Aberdeen. The reduction will raise the water table, allowing the vegetation to recover.
The County took the first step in initiating a dispute resolution process by scheduling a meeting with the Inyo/LA Technical Group to discuss the issue. Inyo County Water Dept. Director Bob Harrington is realistic about the meeting, scheduled for July 15 in Bishop. “Our expectation is that LA will not agree with us in terms of what’s causing the vegetation decline in these areas,” he said. The County already submitted the February 2011 analysis to LADWP, and since then LADWP has persisted in proposing an increase in pumping in the Valley. “Since we’re in the middle of that process for that area,” said Harrington, “we think it’s inappropriate to continue pumping water from that area.”
But the pumping continues, in spite of an expected snowpack runoff this year at 150% of normal. The County argued this runoff water could take the burden off groundwater pumping from April 1, 2011 – March 30, 2012. Snowpack melt, rather than groundwater, could “both help repair environmental damage from drought and previous pumping, and still supply the City of Los Angeles with about 70% of its drinking water needs.”
LA Aqueduct Manager Gene Coufal maintained that LADWP had factored snowpack runoff into its calculations for yearly planned groundwater pumping. “When DWP puts together a plan,” he said, “it’s based on both soil moisture and snow conditions.” Coufal added that “what kind of gets lost this year is that we’re going to be spreading water and recharging the groundwater basin with an estimated 40,000 acre-feet of snowmelt in three main areas in Independence, Big Pine, and Laws.” Whether these areas will include Thibaut-Sawmill and Taboose-Aberdeen remains to be seen.
Coufal also pointed out that “you’ve got to differentiate between what we plan to pump, and what we actually pump.” Typically LADWP doesn’t reach the planned pumping number; that number serves as a target. But while LADWP may not always reach the planned number, as Coufal said, it still usually pumps “within a couple thousand feet” of that number. Which means the Owens Valley is looking at an increase of about 10,000 acre-feet in groundwater pumping from last year to this year, regardless of whether LADWP hits the planned 91,000 acre-foot target or not.
hould the Inyo/LATechnical Group fail to resolve the current dispute, the matter will proceed to the Inyo County/Los Angeles Standing Committee. If the Standing Committee fails to resolve the dispute, the dispute will be resolved through mediation/arbitration, or by the Superior Court.
What this means is the current dispute process could lead to another lengthy and expensive legal battle for both the County and LADWP. And if the County loses, that 40,000 acre-feet of snowpack runoff promised to the Owens Valley by LADWP will be small consolation, given that LA will still be drinking up more than 380,000 acre-feet of Eastern Sierra water by the beginning of next year.