Participants at Tuesday’s Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP)/Inyo County Technical Group meeting in Bishop met to address a proposal to cut water use at the McNally Ponds enhancement and mitigation project near Laws, but quickly seguéd into a more complicated argument regarding the LADWP’s obligations under the 1991 Long Term Water Agreement.
Inyo County had called for the Technical Group meeting after the LADWP appeared to disagree with the County’s proposal to cut water use at McNally Ponds. Technical Group meetings are intended to evaluate water conditions in the Owens Valley; discussion topics can then be referred to Standing Committee meetings for resolution.
The County had proposed the LADWP stop watering one particular part of McNally Ponds, west of Highway 6.
As Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington explained, the LADWP has not been supplying McNally Ponds with water since the drought began. The County suggested at a Standing Committee meeting on May 14 that the LADWP continue to withhold water from the project, as that water might potentially provide irrigators with a boost to their current, diminished allocation.
According to the LADWP’s final operations plan released this week, the LADWP will cut water for irrigation by 60 percent (the draft plan proposed a 66 percent cut). While the LADWP typically supplies about 48,000 acre-feet for irrigation, this year it will only supply about 21,500.
Harrington said the LADWP claimed that the most water it could possibly supply was about 32,500 acre-feet, in part because it’s no longer physically possible to provide certain irrigated leases with the necessary water, for instance if they’re supplied by creeks that are quickly running dry.
Ever since the LADWP first announced it would be severely cutting the Owens Valley irrigation allotment, Inyo County has been brainstorming ways to save water in other Owens Valley projects—for instance the Lower Owens River Project (LORP) and Owens Lake dust mitigation project—and use that water for irrigation. McNally Ponds water could conceivably go toward that goal, Harrington said.
But the LADWP refused to agree to a reduction in McNally Ponds water use because of a procedural technicality. The LADWP argued that because it has not provided water to the McNally Ponds for years, it does not have to agree with the County on any changes to that particular water use.
Such agreement is in fact necessary under the conditions of the Long Term Water Agreement, in cases where the LADWP wishes to reduce water allocations to Owens Valley projects.
LADWP Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta claimed the LADWP thought the County’s Standing Committee motion to cut use to one portion of the McNally Ponds “would have eliminated the whole project.”
Harrington reassured him this was not the case.
Yannotta quickly recommended that the Standing Committee agree to withhold water from that particular part of the McNally Ponds project.
But Big Pine Paiute Tribe Environmental Director Sally Manning was not pleased with the agreement.
“What kind of mitigation is proposed in lieu of this?” she asked. “You can’t just go around CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] and not propose any mitigation that’s equal to or better than this project.”
Harrington replied that the Water Department is looking into alternative methods to supply the McNally Ponds with water. He explained that the project faces several challenges, including conveyance losses when the LADWP uses the McNally Canal to water the contested piece of the project.
Another challenge to that part of the project is that two wells intended to supply it with water have negatively impacted adjacent land, forcing the LADWP to cease pumping from those wells decades ago.
Harrington said a future solution might be to water a pasture closer to two other wells, rather than the pasture which requires water be run through the canal.
Then, Bishop LADWP land lessees Daris Moxley and Gary Gilbert addressed the Technical Group, alleging the LADWP had been violating the Long Term Water Agreement for some time by cutting water allocations to each of their properties without coming before the Technical Group and Standing Committee for County approval.
According to the Long Term Water Agreement, land irrigated since 1981-1982 must receive that same historic water allocation. Again, any changes in that water use must be agreed upon by both the LADWP and Inyo County.
Harrington said Water Department staff was looking at the data Moxley provided regarding her property, “but it’s not clear to us that there’s a violation,” he said.
Manning suggested Harrington take a look at Google Earth images of Moxley’s property for proof of a violation. “You can see the lease is dried up,” she said.
But Yannotta agreed with Harrington: “From the DWP’s standpoint, we don’t see where there are violations,” he said.
As for Gilbert’s separate claim, Harrington said that the Water Department does not have the data to track water use on that particular lease, in part because the lease is supplied by creek water.
“We don’t have good records for what your lease has received over time,” Harrington said.
But Gilbert maintained the LADWP has cut his water allocation without going through the necessary process under the Long Term Water Agreement. “I’m not trying to get water now, I’m talking about how I can keep this from happening again,” he said.
“There’s just no surface water to provide you,” said Yannotta. He added that when creek water levels are already low, the LADWP can’t divert water, as it must maintain necessary stream flows for the benefit of fish and stream habitat.
Upcoming: At the June 4 Standing Committee meeting, the LADWP and Inyo County will be discussing possible reductions to other Valley water uses to free up water for irrigators. Meanwhile the LADWP and Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District will be coming to a resolution in June about potential cuts to water use on Owens Lake. Again, water saved on Owens Lake would go to irrigators.
“If they [Great Basin and the LADWP] could come to some agreement there, that would free up some water for irrigation,” Harrington said. “I don’t know how much, but I’ve been told it’s thousands of acre feet.”