Is the water glass half empty or half full? Both optimism and considerable skepticism surround dealings between Inyo County and the City of Los Angeles over how to distribute irrigation water to meet the many needs within the County. Under the Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) and other MOU agreements, the many parties required to approve any actions or solutions to the drought make the decision-making process complicated.
With over two weeks of County Board of Supervisors’ workshops and a Technical Group meeting in Bishop, the Standing Committee, formed under the LTWA, met last Thursday in Independence to address concerns brought forward by the Inyo County Board of Supervisors.
The Committee is composed of representatives from the City of Los Angeles and Inyo County, and is intended to settle disagreements between the two parties without resorting to the courts. Everyone going into the meeting seemed to agree that, when it comes to the current water conditions in the Eastern Sierra, the glass is half empty, if not more. With a snow pack measured at only 4 percent of normal and run-off far below normal, the situation could become much worse should the drought continue into a fifth year.
The Standing Committee attempted to find common ground to respond in ways acceptable to both parties. That wasn’t easy given the fact that two weeks ago the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) sent letters to local ranchers and farmers, lessees on city-owned land, informing them that their yearly allocation of irrigation water would be reduced by two-thirds under the pumping plan for this year and be cut off entirely on May 1. The letter was sent out by LADWP just before the Board of Supervisors held their first pubic workshop on the drought, raising both alarm and anger.
Under the LTWA and other MOUs in place regarding water issues, such actions must be discussed and agreed upon by both the County and Los Angeles. Those cuts were postponed until another Standing Committee meeting scheduled for June 4.
At the beginning of the four-hour meeting, the Committee voted down a motion by Los Angeles City Councilman Felipe Fuentes to increase the original irrigation allotment from 16,500 to 18,500 by giving agriculture the 2,000 acre-feet saved on Owens Lake.
Inyo County then put forward a motion to reduce the water typically supplied for irrigation by 20 percent, bringing the allotment to 39,200 acre-feet, and on leaving McNally Ponds dry, which was quickly voted down by Los Angeles.
LADWP Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta told the Committee that the LADWP had already planned to not supply water to McNally Ponds this year under their pumping plan. But County Water Department Director Bob Harrington quickly voiced his disagreement with LADWP’s interpretation that McNally Ponds, located in the Laws area, is a “wet-year project under the LTWA” as claimed by Yannotta.
Complicating possible solutions is that many of the solutions proposed by the Committee fall under several MOU agreements and the partners to those agreements must be consulted, and must also approve, before anything can move forward. Proposed solutions range from modifying the base flows to the Lower Owens River Project and the river delta, to leaving Warren Lake, located near Big Pine, empty. The LADWP may also be able to take actions on Owens Lake, with appropriate approvals. LADWP wants those approvals to avoid being fined as much as $10,000 a day for violating air quality standards.
LADWP told the Committee that they will work with the State Lands Commission, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Owens Valley Committee, Sierra Club, and others for quick solutions, but asked that Inyo County support their efforts through letters of support to those partners. Inyo County Board Chair Matt Kingsley agreed that County could aid in those efforts, but that LADWP needs to provide leadership and initiative.
The County also suggested, as did the Owens Valley Committee and the Sierra Club, that water stored in Crowley Lake was a possible source of additional water to meet LADWP obligations. Yannotta responded that the LADWP had to keep a minimum draw-down for emergencies and that the reservoir is already dangerously close to that emergency level.
Fuentes also weighed in, saying that the City “did not have the authority to move water out of Crowley below that minimum.” Inyo County representatives responded that if the current water situation in the Eastern Sierra isn’t an emergency, then what is?
The Standing Committee will meet again on June 4.