Officials from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power are objecting to recent allegations that they are out to grab as much water from the Owens Valley as possible this year.
In February, the LADWP announced that, with an Eastern Sierra snowpack runoff forecast to be 616,900 acre-feet, or 150 percent of average, it anticipates pumping about 91,000 acre-feet of groundwater during the runoff year.
There have been reports from residents, including Daniel Pritchett of the Bristlecone Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, and other media sources, that the LADWP will be increasing its pumping in the valley, despite obvious negative impacts to some regions in the Owens Valley.
In a letter to the editor, Pritchett said in May that the Blackrock Springs wellfield between Big Pine and Independence has seen “significant” negative impacts from LADWP’s pumping, and proposed operations for the coming year will only make matters worse.
The increased pumping in the Blackrock wellfield, Pritchett said, will destroy the meadow there.
In its operation plan for 2011-12, the LADWP said it plans to provide nearly 200,000 acre-feet of water for various Owens Valley uses, including 55,000 acre-feet for irrigation, 11,000 for stock water, 10,500 for enhancement/mitigation projects, 10,400 for recreation and wildlife uses, 16,900 for the Lower Owens River Project and 95,000 for the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program.
“Most of these uses are part of the Water Agreement wherein Inyo County secured specific water allotments and land management practices to ensure the rural appeal of the valley and to mitigate the past and present impacts of Los Angeles exercising its water rights,” a press release from the department states.
“I read an assertion that LADWP wanted to follow a water policy of ‘get all you can get,’” said Director of Water Operations Marty Adams regarding comments made by another media outlet following a Standing Committee meeting early this month. “That simply is not true. We are targeting to pump less than half of the 197,000 acre-feet of groundwater that the Owens Valley environmental protections, known as well ‘on-off triggers’ would provide for under the Water Agreement.”
Adams went on to explain that the 200,000 acre-feet of water the LADWP will use in the Owens Valley this year is actually more than the 197,000 acre-feet the department is permitted to pump under the Long-Term Water Agreement.
The Inyo County-Los Angeles Long-Term Water Agreement is an official court document that lays out a specific set of rules for the LADWP’s water operations.
“The notion that Los Angeles operates outside of the Water Agreement’s parameters is simply wrong,” Adams said.
In his letter, Pritchett does not accuse the LADWP of ignoring or acting outside the LTWA, but simply says the agreement does not work in some areas, including Blackrock.
Adams said he agrees that there are some instances where the Long-Term Water Agreement does not work, and the LADWP and Inyo County are working to fix that. “But that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process,” he said.
The LADWP says that, as long as it is operating within the parameters of the LTWA, it is in the clear.
According to Brian Tillemans, LADWP Watershed Resources manager, “The Water Agreement prescribes pumping based on soil moisture and vegetation water requirements. We know from experience that a reasonable level of pumping can be sustained while maintaining environmental health and minimizing impacts. There has been a lot of discussion about using depth-to-water as an operational guide. That option was rejected when the Water Agreement was written 20 years ago, so vegetation conditions and soil moisture are the guides we are currently obligated to use.”
The department is also saying that a heavy snowpack in the Sierra is a good sign and vegetation in the Owens Valley is at a healthy level.
“With the recent state-wide drought ending this past winter, California received exceptionally high precipitation and environmental conditions in the Owens Valley are quite good,” the press release states. “Vegetation conditions are at or near 1984-87 baseline cover levels and the groundwater table remains high. Heavier than normal precipitation on the valley floor during the 2010-11 runoff year, on top of the current high groundwater levels and well above normal forecast runoff, promise to make environmental conditions in the upcoming year even better.”
Due to the higher than normal runoff and what the department is calling a “relatively modest pumping planned for this year,” the overall groundwater table is expected to rise by about one-half foot by April 2012.
The LADWP has also said that Los Angeles residents have lowered their water usage, which means the demand for water from the Owens Valley has gone down.
“Due to the extraordinary water conservation efforts made by Angelenos, the overall water demand for the upcoming year is expected to be only 557,0000 acre-feet, which is lower today than in 1970, although the population has increased from 2.8 million to more than 4.1 million over that same time,” the press release states. “Local groundwater, reclaimed water and water purchases from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (primarily water imported from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta) will supplement Eastern Sierra exports to meet the balance of the city’s municipal demand.”
But what LADWP – and the Inyo County Board of Supervisors – fail to remember, Pritchett said, is that despite the heavy runoff year, the use of water for in-valley projects, reduced water consumption in L.A. and the city’s pumping allowances under the LTWA, the document also says LADWP must avoid causing “significant impact” to valley vegetation.
And that, Pritchett said, is exactly what’s happened in the Blackrock wellfield, where LADWP will actually increase pumping this year.
In February, the county Water Department released a report stating as much, according to Pritchett, but no recommended change in management has been forthcoming.
In his letter to the editor, Pritchett questioned whether it would take another court order to compel LADWP to do the right thing, or, on Inyo County’s end, a change in leadership to get results.