By Deb Murphy
Mono County’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pursue litigation against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to “restrain” its policy of withdrawing irrigation water from 6,400 acres of grazing leases in Long, Round and Little Round valleys.
Tuesday’s discussion of the issue took 3-1/2 hours with comments from 27 speakers in Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes. The chambers were packed with an overflow of supporters of either the environment, the lease-holding ranchers or both watching the proceedings on a laptop in the hallway.
Comments were polite, but brutal. Chair Bob Gardner resurrected his Darth Vader comparison to LADWP from an earlier meeting.
A bit of background: Ranchers in the valleys received up to 5-acre feet of irrigation water totaling a maximum of 30,000 a-f, until the department presented them with their new leases this spring with no water provided. Mono County and other stakeholders pushed back.
LADWP conceded to providing a total of 5,000 a-f for irrigation this year and to do an Initial Study this fall under the California Environmental Quality Act. The department’s intent was to only provide water on 500 acres of sage grouse habitat in subsequent years.
The County, environmental groups, elected officials and state agencies launched a letter writing campaign. The result: a series of meetings with department management to arrive at a collaborative solution. The end result: nothing, according to County Counsel Stacey Simon.
LADWP initiated a PR campaign referencing the “free water” it had been providing to “commercial ranchers.” The cost of the “free water” is wrapped into the price cost of the leases, said Inyo/Mono Cattlemen’s Association President Matt Kemp. According to Simon, irrigation water was cut off a couple of weeks ago and the department “had to be convinced to keep water on the sage grouse habitat.”
A brave Clarence Martin, LADWP’s Aqueduct Manager, spoke, reading a statement “into the record to correct some of the misinformation.” The department is re-assessing its water management based on the new reality, he said. He noted the department’s commitment to the Initial Study and ended with “we’ll look at this very carefully.”
Patti Novak from Little Round Valley provided photographic evidence damage has already been done with mustard and tumbleweed invading pasturelands.
Steve Nelson, BLM Bishop field manager, told the Board “we have to figure out what will work everybody. It’s not all about science. Managing those meadows is an art. Nobody has that ability more than the ranchers.”
Supervisor Fred Stump opened up board comments, pointing out all the legal battles LADWP has lost. “Look at Owens Lake, Mono Lake, litigation and mitigation are expensive.”
Supervisor Stacy Corless was told “our goal is no water on ranch lands” during meetings with LADWP staff. “The environmental work and mitigation is in place because of DWP actions,” she said. “It didn’t fall out of the sky. It’s because of mismanagement.”
“Climate change is real,” said Supervisor Jennifer Halferty. “Mitigation is not the answer; adaptation is.”
Supervisor John Peters noted DWP’s first step was “further degradation of the land. You can’t back into a management plan.”
Chair Gardner listed off the names of LADWP’s Board of Commissioners. “They are accountable for these decisions,” he said. “They can do the right thing, right now.”
The agenda item included seven recommended actions. Starting with a letter to LADWP Commission Chair Mel Levine pointing out inaccuracies in communications coming out of the department. Other items included working toward a political/collaborative solution, continuing to work with other groups and agencies, pursuit of state and federal legislation and a long-term water management plan. The final item: file litigation against LADWP.
The Supervisors approved all seven.