If you’ve driven through Big Pine, you’ve driven past the Bartell Parcel: 5.6 unassuming acres on the east side of U.S. 395 between the Big Pine Unified School District and Big Pine Paiute Tribe Reservation. In May, at the request of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, the Bartell Parcel leasee burned the remaining vegetation on the lot to reduce the fire hazard. This created a dust hazard recently identified for mitigation by Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD).
But the dust hazard is just one part of a larger issue the Tribe has with the parcel, which the Tribe claims the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) ought to have been irrigating since the late 1990s. The DWP took over ownership of the Bartell Parcel around the turn of the last century, according to former Inyo County Water Director Greg James, but has been leasing the parcel ever since.
On Aug. 20, Big Pine Paiute Tribe Environmental Director Sally Manning presented the Inyo County Board of Supervisors with evidence that the Bartell Parcel has been irrigated as far back as the 1850s, when surveyor A.W. Von Schmidt made note of Paiute irrigation channels leading into the area. Manning argued that according to DWP records, the DWP continued irrigating that land from at least 1981 until the late 1990s. She gathered Google Earth imagery of the parcel to demonstrate that the parcel had dense vegetation cover until the early 2000’s, when all irrigation ceased. As of 2009, she said, “It’s pretty dry out there.”
Because of this evidence of irrigation, Manning argued that the DWP must continue to irrigate the land according to the requirements set forth by the 1990 Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement. As Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington explained, “The Water Agreement’s requirements for irrigated lands is that if they were irrigated in ’81, they must be irrigated in the future such that the water use of the land can continue.”
However, because the Bartell Parcel does not appear on any DWP vegetation management maps as Type E, or irrigated land, the DWP is arguing that it isn’t required to continue irrigation. The vegetation maps, created to assess baseline vegetation on DWP-owned parcels in the Owens Valley during the creation of the Water Agreement, classify parcels as Type A through E, or urban through irrigated. But Harrington pointed out that “The purpose of this mapping was a range survey, so they weren’t paying a lot of attention to towns.”
As Manning noted, the DWP maps have many inaccuracies, apart from the lack of vegetation classification for the Bartell Parcel. For instance, the DWP missed mapping Type E vegetation areas in Olancha/Cartago, but continues to irrigate those lands today.
DWP Staff Engineer Bob Prendergast presented the DWP stance on the issue. “The DWP has not provided an irrigation allotment to that parcel since at least 1968,” he said. The leasee of the land irrigated the land through the Big Pine Water Association, not a DWP approved water allotment, he said. An Aug. 19 DWP letter to the Board called this irrigation by the lease “inappropriate.”
Meanwhile the responsibility for mitigating the dust generated by the lot also rests with the leasee, Prendergast added.
“It seems like not only the Town and Tribe, but the City also has an interest in getting the parcel to look good, and keep down the dust,” said Supervisor Matt Kingsley. “It’s in everybody’s best interest, really, to do what’s best for the property.” Supervisor Mark Tillemans agreed, calling the Bartell Parcel “an opportunity for the City to do something positive for the community.”
The Board concurred that the Water Department should conduct a further investigation into the issue, focusing in particular on DWP records that will show whether the DWP did or did not authorize irrigation on the parcel. Harrington told the Board that acquiring this information could take about four weeks.
“It looks like this is going to be ongoing,” said Board Chair Linda Arcularius.