Letter to the Editor

– Submitted by David Wagner

In his definitive book on the Owens Valley water controversy, Water and Power, William Kahrl describes how in 1905, William Mulholland fabricated a drought in Los Angeles to frighten voters into approving a bond issue to help finance the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. It was impossible to contradict Mulholland because there were no hydrologic data for Los Angeles other than those in the files of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. In 1907, well after the passage of the bond issue, Mulholland reversed himself and said rainfall in 1905 was normal and provided higher stream flow figures than those he used to justify his “water nightmare” of 1905.

One hundred and ten years later we are experiencing a drought that is all too real. It appears that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) of today is every bit as adept at using the specter of drought to its advantage as it was in Mulholland’s day. In April 2015 LADWP submitted a pumping plan for the 2015-16 runnoff year which called for 16,500 acre feet of irrigation water for the Owens Valley leasees, an amount that would certainly mean financial ruin for many of them. On April 27, LADWP notified the ranchers and farmers in Owens Valley there would be no irrigation water deliveries after May 1, 2015. In a letter dated April 28, 2015 the Inyo County Board of Supervisors called the unilateral discontinuation of irrigation water in Owens Valley a clear violation of the Long Term Water Agreement and called on LADWP to rescind the April 27th letter. Within days Jim Yannotta, manager of the Aqueduct did rescind the irrigation water shutoff but still insists the cutbacks are reasonable.

At Talking Water workshops convened in early May by the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, Yannotta argued that because of this unprecedented drought there simply is not enough water to fill everyone’s needs. He stressed that, as per the recently approved pumping plan, there would be no water exported to Los Angeles from Owens Valley for the first six months of the year and only 42,000 acre-feet for the second six months, representing an 82% reduction from a normal year. This sounds like a sacrifice, but is it?

The LADWP pumping plan also says that 9% of the water used in Los Angeles during the coming year will come from the Eastern Sierra and that 20% of the water used in the coming year will come from its own aquifers. LA’s own aquifers will provide twice the amount of water than Owens Valley. It would be interesting to know if some of the water from LA’s aquifers originated in the Owens Valley. LA, along with rest of California, is subject to the Governor’s mandate for a 25% reduction in water use. If Los Angeles does achieve a significant reduction, in all probability there will be no need for water from Owens Valley. LADWP has been highlighting the fact that they will not export water for the first six months of the year as though it is a sacrifice when it is more likely the reason is that LA doesn’t really need it and probably wouldn’t know what to do with it if it was delivered to LA.

So what’s going on? A look at Haiwee Reservoir says a lot. It is full to the brim. Could it be that LADWP has been busily storing water downstream so they don’t have to provide it to the Owens Valley ranchers and farmers? In a letter to the Inyo Register (May 7, 2015), former Inyo County counsel, Randy Keller, wondered why LADWP stores water in Haiwee instead of Crowley where it could be used for irrigation. Keller said he was discouraged by a lack of transparency by LADWP. LADWP has recently announced it will provide water for irrigation through July but does not say where or how much. Just like in Mulholland’s day, they have the data and anyone else who would like to have some verification of irrigation flows, doesn’t.

In their Talking Water workshops the Inyo County Board of Supervisors instructed staff to evaluate the feasibility of cutting water from mandated mitigation projects in Owens Valley and using it for irrigation. The largest mitigation project is the Lower Owens River Project (LORP). Board Chair Matt Kingsley has been the most ardent proponent of reductions to the LORP while interestingly Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta would rather talk about reductions in water used for dust mitigation on Owens Lake. Most of the water delivered to the LORP is pumped back to the aqueduct so it is understandable that Mr. Yannotta is lukewarm about cutting LORP flows. Reducing flows to the LORP is risky business involving possible water quality problems that could result in fish kills and may even be subject to CEQA. In any case, the 4000 acre feet of water from flow reduction in the LORP and other mitigation projects are far from enough to fill the short fall. It has been repeatedly mentioned that there is more than sufficient water in Crowley Lake to provide water for irrigation in Owens Valley but so far LADWP has resisted, offering unconvincing arguments for not doing so.

The real objective is to reduce the amount of water used for dust mitigation on Owens Lake. Years ago LADWP was given three options for dust mitigation: flooding, gravel spreading or revegetation. Water was relatively abundant at the time so flooding was chosen, a decision that has proven to be disastrous.

LADWP is using the drought to accomplish two goals, reduce the number of agricultural water users in Owens Valley, and reduce the amount of water for dust mitigation on Owens Lake.

David Wagner


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