In a public ruling late last month, Inyo County was dealt a setback in its attempts to take over three landfills from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
The ruling, which came from a judge in Kern County, dictated that Inyo County would have to rescind resolutions that authorized the condemnation of the three properties. Condemning the properties would allow Inyo County to gain full control over the land, which is owned by LADWP, including all water rights associated with those properties.
The judge’s logic: Inyo had failed to complete environmental reviews on each of the properties before attempting to condemn them. Any further action by Inyo would have to be stalled until the reviews are complete.
Inyo County’s attempts to claim the landfills in Bishop, Independence, and Lone Pine, began in Summer 2017; a staff report from that time outlines recent actions by LADWP that make the current (at the time) leases undesirable. The actions include quadrupling rent to over $20,000 annually, hindering Inyo County’s ability to operate a landfill effectively via bureaucracy, and limiting the ability to coordinate with other jurisdictions. In addition, county employees report increased resources spent on loan negotiation and frustration with LADWP’s approval process.
“The issues of supplying water by the city of Los Angeles to mitigation projects and other required actions from the long term water agreements gives Inyo County reason to desire to own the water rights for the landfills,” Inyo County Supervisor Matt Kingsley told the Sheet.
LADWP did not like any of this.
It filed a California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit in early 2018, arguing that the county must perform an analysis of hypothetical changes that could occur when the properties changes hands.
Inyo County disputed that line of reasoning to no avail, and alleged that the judge had been intentionally misled by LADWP’s legal representation to believe that Inyo had to conduct CEQA reviews for any possible usage of the land as opposed to Inyo’s intention to continue running the landfills as is.
LADWP also expressed concerns related Inyo County’s history of environmental violations at the sites as well as the potential impact of the county’s actions on water quality in the region.
According to LADWP, it has offered many times to negotiate a sale or come to a peaceful agreement about ownership of the land while DWP retained water rights. The only option left was to file a suit.
After the ruling was announced, LADWP put out a press release celebrating its victory, noting, “The litigation, which Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) officials had repeatedly sought to put on hold in an effort to find a peaceful resolution that would address Inyo’s waste management needs and LADWP’s environmental and water quality concerns, may now cost Inyo as much as $2 million in damages to Los Angeles.”
Per Martin Adams, LADWP General Manager Chief Engineer: “This is an important victory not only for LADWP, but also for other water rights holders in California, including ranchers and other private citizens. Inyo sought to condemn city property and take water rights from a municipal water supplier without identifying any specific use for the water and without considering the environmental impacts. Left unchecked, Inyo’s actions could have set a terrible precedent with far-reaching consequences for property owners throughout the State of California.”
As for Inyo County’s response:
“We were disappointed and surprised by the judge’s ruling, and the board is weighing all of its options,” Kingsley said, “including appeal.”
Said Supervisor Jeff Griffiths: “The decision in the case doesn’t really make sense in that there’s no change in the use of the land.It doesn’t make sense that you would have to do a full environmental impact review.”
“I don’t know if it’s totally a surprise if you consider that DWP has a long history of legal bullying and they have unlimited resources,” Griffiths added.
Inyo County Counsel Marshall Rudolph explained that the county has approximately 60 days to file an appeal, with the deadline landing around August 3, or they could instead opt to accept the court’s decision and rescind the resolutions.
There are also three separate court cases, one for each resolution that have been placed on hold until the final decision on the CEQA ruling is made. According to Rudolph, those could be dismissed if the county’s appeal is denied and the court could also hold Inyo County responsible for paying LADWP’s attorney fees in those instances as well.
He also noted that everything going on at the sites has been approved by regulatory bodies and permitted by CEQA.
“It’s a landfill,” Rudolph said, “an existing operation that we’ve run for decades that we plan to continue to run for decades not as LA’s tenants.”
In response to LADWP’s assertion that a CEQA review is necessary, Kingsley said, “It’s a landfill now owned by the city of Los Angeles and we see it as a landfill afterwards owned by the county of Inyo.”
The violations that LADWP referenced as reason for retaining ownership of the land are also a point of contention, as Griffiths explained.
“It’s ironic that the violations that we had from CalRecycle were related to not having a current lease,” he said, “and the reason we didn’t have a current lease was because DWP didn’t renew it.”