Southern California Edison representatives were in town earlier this week for a presentation on a subject that refreshingly had nothing to do with Public Safety Power Shutoffs, although it may be just as controversial.
This time around, SCE came before the Mono County Supervisors to talk about the Lundy Hydroelectric Project in Mono Basin and water allocation as a means of responding to complaints about low water levels in Mill and Wilson Creek.
The Lundy hydroelectric project sits on Mill Creek, the 3rd largest tributary to Mono Lake. After generating hydro power, SCE is responsible for moving that water where it needs to go (i.e Wilson Creek, Sherman Ranch, etc.). Conflict arose during 2019 when Wilson Creek ran dry during an abundantly wet year, resulting in fish kill in Wilson Creek, which was originally a diversion ditch from Mill Creek.
Cal Rossi, Governmental Affairs manager for SCE, opened the presentation with a brief introduction, noting “There is public interest in our activities” while assuring the supervisors and gathered locals that “SCE’s recent and future use is fully compliant with both 1914 adjudicated water rights.”
After his opening, Rossi then gave the microphone to Matthew Woodhall, a regulatory advisor for SCE, and Geoff McQuilken, executive director of the Mono Lake Committee, who spoke for the better part of an hour on the Lundy project and their 2020 goals.
McQuilken lead off with a simple question: What is controlling the state of Wilson Creek?
Answer: the 1914 Adjudicated Water Rights regarding the creek. The settlement agreement of 2004 “was never intended to, and does not, change any 1914 adjudicated water rights,” said McQuilken, who mentioned that only the Mono Superior court could alter those rights. SCE’s movement of water in Mono Basin is mandated by the quantities and priorities laid out in the 1914 rights.
“If you imagine for a moment no hydro project in Mill creek,” explained McQuilken, “water would be distributed according to those same rights.”
1914 rights holders include Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), Mono County, Bureau of Land Management, Simis Ranch, and the Forest Service.
In all, rights holders receive 74.6 cubic feet/second (cfs) with LADWP leading the pack at 42.8 cfs in rights on Mill Creek. Anything beyond that 74.6 cfs also goes to LADWP.
SCE manages the task of distribution with a computer tool that incorporates a wide variety of information and variables such as historic data, forecasting, and lake inflow.
To move that water, SCE uses a system of channels and a splitterbox, giving them the ability to divert water to other locations as they see fit.
Oversight on the project comes in the form of communication with rights holders, an annual water management plan, and a daily reporting tool. SCE also conducts an environmental review pursuant to NEPA regulations with additional CEQA regulations if permitting or if other agencies become involved.
The plans for 2020, as laid out by McQuilken and Woodhall, are essentially to continue business as usual: using the accounting tool for delivering water according to the pre-established rights and communicating with rights holders.
McQuilken and Woodhall repeatedly referred to the mandate of the 1914 adjudicated rights as the reason for SCE’s action, portraying the utility as having its hands tied in the matter.
Anyone looking to place blame on them for mishandling the water would have to take up the issue with another entity.
SCE’s explanation of the situation and plans going forward didn’t entirely sit well with the supervisors.
Supervisor Stump noted, “I haven’t heard any party say that it’s acceptable to dry up the [Wilson] arroyo from time to time. McQuilken explained that drying up is part of the arroyo’s history while Woodhall reiterated SCE’s need to adhere to the 1914 rights.
Supervisor Kreitz took issue with SCE’s on-site technology, at one point telling Woodhall and McQuilken, “It sounds like you don’t really know how much [water] you’re releasing.”
Woodhall explained that SCE is not required to do so while admitting, “There may end up being more water changes that are needed.”
Kreitz also asked who among the settlement parties is subject to the California Environment Quality Act (CEQA), at which point Kelly Henderson, in-house counsel at SCE, took the podium to explain that, “We did not need any permits to start putting water back into return ditch…as a private entity, there is no CEQA obligations for us. If we need a permit from someone, we’ll certainly pursue that and at that point be subject to the county’s CEQA review.”
Kreitz then noted that while SCE had talked repeatedly about stakeholders and right holders, they hadn’t mentioned outreach to the wider community, with Peterson responding,
“We do believe that our appearances here are the best way [to reach out]”
“I disagree,” said Kreitz, “I really think it should be something beyond these kinds of meetings.”
Cole Hawkins, a Mono Basin resident, stepped to the podium during the public comment section. “I get the feeling that people are presenting adjudicated water rights as how the water has to be used,” noting that those rights do not require maximum water usage.
“That’s a choice that’s made by the water right holder,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins went on: “With all the talk of water rights and tech…we’re overlooking the fact that for the better part of 100 years, water’s been flowing in Wilson creek as a result of a diversion. To cut the water off “willy-nilly” is irresponsible.”
Supervisor Peters echoed Hawkins’ words, noting “So far, no one has taken ownership of what happened in a wet year and that’s disturbing to me.”
“2020 is a pivotal year for Mono county to be delivered the information and someone taking ownership for what is happening in these ditches and reservoirs,” said Peters.
“I don’t think this board or county is going to sit back and watch a repeat of what happened in 2019.”