On Tuesday, while dark clouds dropped much needed rain on the mountains and in the valley, the Inyo County Board of Supervisors continued to wrestle with elements of the proposed Los Angeles Department Water of Power (LADWP) pumping plan for runoff year 2013-14. Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington presented the Board with two “complicated and controversial” requests posed by the LADWP to the County as part of the pumping plan: the first, to reduce pumping for irrigation, and the second to reduce water for mitigation and enhancement projects in the Owens Valley.
According to a March 29 letter from the LADWP to Harrington, Los Angeles requested that Inyo County consider a 20% reduction in pumping for irrigation at the Laws and Independence well fields, and a 10% reduction in pumping for irrigation throughout the rest of the Valley. The DWP letter noted that this runoff year represents a second drought year, with DWP estimates of snowpack runoff at about 50% of normal, and Owens Valley floor precipitation during 2012 at approximately 25% of normal. Harrington explained that, because of the two successive drought years, the DWP can request this reduction to irrigation in the Valley. However, the Board of Supervisors must approve it.
Even if the Board does not agree to a reduction in pumping for irrigation, lessees in the Owens Valley will still see a significant reduction in water available for irrigation simply because less water is coming down from the mountains, Harrington said. He noted that the DWP has promised to assess the 10% Valley-wide irrigation reduction on a lessee-to-lessee basis because of this. For example, a lessee hit hard by a lack of surface water on one parcel but supplied by groundwater on another parcel might be exempt from a reduction. Another lessee, reliant solely on groundwater, might not.
Supervisor Jeff Griffiths voiced his skepticism for this approach, calling it a “just trust us” situation. “Would we be at the whim of the LADWP, or would the [Inyo County] Water Department have any say in any water distribution [for Valley lessees]?” he asked. Harrington said no; “We don’t have a mechanism in place to do that.” In other words, the County, and Valley lessees, would rely on the DWP’s promise of fairness in judging who would be qualified for reduction in irrigation water, and who would be exempt.
Supervisor Mark Tillemans pointed out that the DWP has failed to be fair when it comes to reductions in pumping for irrigation in the past, as when the DWP neglected to supply water to the McNally Ponds near Laws from 2007-2010 without ever seeking the necessary approval from the Inyo County Board of Supervisors. “That goes to our trust issue,” he said.
Supervisor Rick Pucci also noted that any reduction in pumping for irrigation would effect not only lessees, but also other businesses and community assets like parks, golf courses, and hatcheries. “It sounds like I’m a nut for golf courses,” he said, “but that’s because I think they’re an example of a bigger part of the community [that will be impacted] than just individual businesses or assets.”
Speaking on behalf of lessees, Tom Noland of the Cattleman’s Association voiced the Association’s lack of favor for any reduction in pumping for irrigation in the Owens Valley. “We’re already receiving reductions because the water’s just not there,” he said. He noted that a 20% reduction in irrigation in Independence would also affect the production of hay, which cattlemen are already relying on more heavily because of the two consecutive drought years. “The cutback will effect not only the environment, but the local economy,” he said.
According to the Inyo/Los Angeles Water Agreement, irrigated lands must continue to be supplied with water to avoid significant decreases and changes in vegetation from conditions established in 1981-82. The Green Book, an appendix to the Water Agreement, also states that if a significant decrease or change in vegetation conditions occurs because of a reduction in water, and if the reduction is not the result of an agreement between the DWP and Inyo, water must be immediately increased to avoid such decreases or change.
However, should the Board of Supervisors agree to a reduction in pumping for irrigation, any dispute over the ensuing impact to vegetation could become as thorny as the current Blackrock case. Inyo County and the DWP have been fighting over the Blackrock area near Blackrock Fish Hatchery for several years now. Inyo contends that DWP pumping has negatively affected areas of native vegetation, and that therefore the DWP must mitigate, while the DWP contests this claim.
A similar situation could potentially arise from the Board’s agreement to a reduction in pumping for irrigation this runoff year, Harrington said. “Los Angeles would argue, possibly, that the decrease [in vegetation] is due to a reduction in water supply that the County agreed to,” he said. “The Water Department would face not only showing measurable change, but also differentiating between reductions to water supply that the County agreed to, versus reductions they did not agree to.” He added, “It’s hard for me to recommend agreeing to a reduction in irrigation here and then confront that hurdle down the road.”
Harrington had fewer reservations about the second request posed by the LADWP to Inyo County regarding a reduction in pumping for mitigation and enhancement projects at the McNally Ponds near Laws, and the Van Norman parcel near Lone Pine. The McNally Ponds project was initially undertaken to create a waterfowl habitat, enhance and maintain existing vegetation and increase livestock grazing capacities. The Van Norman parcel was intended to reestablish abandoned pasture land and provide water to native vegetation lands. The reduction in water to both projects would count toward the overall 10% reduction in irrigation water in the Owens Valley, Harrington said.
Harrington suggested that the Board agree to the requested reductions at McNally and Van Norman, although with stipulations. Both projects are outdated, he suggested, and water reduced there should not be lost, but rather re-supplied to areas of better use. Water could be diverted from Bishop Creek Canal to an area between Riverside Drive and Owens River in place of the McNally Ponds, he said. This would reduce conveyance losses suffered by the DWP because of the transport of water to the McNally Ponds, while continuing to irrigate and mitigate.
Meanwhile, Tom Noland pointed out that the Van Norman parcel has received little water in recent years regardless of DWP goals. “We’re getting a trickle, a pittance of water there,” he said. “The assumption is that it’s already a well-watered field, but really it would be a reduction from a well that hasn’t produced anything, anyway.” The Van Norman well has produced less and less acre-feet of water every year, dropping from a high of 512 acre-feet in 2006 to a low of 97 acre-feet in 2012. The DWP has installed a new well, and Harrington suggested suspending irrigation at Van Norman until the new well is up and running, after which the water supplied by the well will be redistributed to the adjacent Richards Field Project and Lone Pine High School Farm instead.
Overall, Harrington said, the Board faces the challenge of trying to see the long-term impacts of the LADWP’s short-term, six month pumping plan. “The DWP is not digging big holes in the water table like they did in 76-77 or 86-90,” he said; “the problem is, what is the effect of our pumping regime over 10 years? Slow, gradual decline [in groundwater]? Slow, gradual shrub-encroachment? We don’t really know.”
The Board agreed with his assessment and recommendations. “I’m opposed to any reduction for irrigation for any purpose,” said Supervisor Griffiths. “We’ve lost so much that we need to at least maintain what we have.” Added Supervisor Pucci, “We need to survive as a community. All of the things said today are going to impact that survival.”
The Board may take action regarding the pumping plan as early as the next scheduled Board of Supervisors meeting on May 14. If not, the issue will continue to the Standing Committee meeting in Los Angeles on May 20.