By Deb Murphy

After nearly an hour of public comment opposed to the Well 385R pump test, it took the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Board of Commissioners about 10 minutes to put a unanimous stamp of approval on the two-month trial run of the Five Bridges well.

The question at hand at yesterday’s board meeting was a vote on accepting the Initial Study/Negative Declaration.

Following the comment period, Commissioner Aura Vasquez asked Anselmo Collins, the director of water operations, what steps came next. His response: set the trigger levels, start the two-month test and if the department chose to move forward, LADWP would “be obligated to do a CEQA—California Environmental Quality Act—at some level.”
Chair Mel Levine called for a motion, the board voted and that was that.

W385R is one of two wells in off-status since the 1980s. The 300-acres of vegetation damage has yet to be mitigated.

It’s unsure whether the 12 speakers, most commenting from the department’s Bishop office, thought they had a shot at preventing the final decision. But the speed at which that decision was made drew a groan from the gallery.

The only real acknowledgement of the letters submitted during the public comment period was a statement that test operations were exempt under CEQA and there was “no fair argument” against the two-month run.

In a final effort to sway the Board, Donald Mooney, attorney for the Owens Valley Committee, submitted a letter to Levine dated yesterday. Mooney noted objections from both state and federal fish and wildlife departments and Sally Manning. “Those letters constitute opinions by experts supporting a fair argument that the project may have significant impacts to biological resources. CEQA and case law is quite clear that ‘if there is a disagreement among expert opinion over the significance of an effort on the environment, the lead agency shall treat the effect as significant and shall prepare an EIR.’”

The fact the “new” 385R would draw from the deep aquifer wasn’t reassuring.

Biologist Ceal Klinger pointed out the proximity of the wells to Fish Slough, an area of critical environmental concern and home to eight rare plants and a number of endangered species. “It takes years for damage to appear (from deep aquifer pumping),” she said adding when the damage does appear it’s over a much wider area. “A Negative Declaration doesn’t look at long term impacts,” she said.

OVC’s Mary Roper reiterated the danger of deep aquifer pumping. A US Geological Society study of the valley determined that “if you pump anywhere, you pump everywhere,” she said.

One of the more incomprehensible issues was LADWP’s inept consultation process with the Big Pine and Bishop Tribes. The Inyo County Board of Supervisors went through four sessions resolving a consultation process in compliance with state law and acceptable to county Tribes. The department seems to have skipped that process.

According to Manning, director of the environmental department for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley, consultation lasted two hours in mid-October. Then the Tribes received a letter notifying them the consultation process was terminated as of late September.

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