Submitted by Daniel Pritchett

At the 2/9/17 Technical Group meeting Inyo County Water Department director Bob Harrington voted to approve DWP’s pre-construction plan for new wells on the Bishop cone (and was roundly booed for his efforts). Afterwards, he was quoted as saying, “There seems to be a misconception that the county is in favor of putting these new wells in (Inyo Register 2/11/17).” The public can hardly be blamed for its misconception. If approving flawed pre-construction plans is how the county manifests its opposition to the wells, one can only wonder what the county would have done had it supported construction of the wells!

The public’s misconception should not have surprised Mr. Harrington. The pre-construction plan wasn’t on the agenda of the recent (2/1/17) meeting of the Inyo County Water Commission, notwithstanding the fact the Water Department had received the report in mid-January. Had the Water Department brought the plan before the Water Commission it would have had the opportunity to make its case to the public as to why approving the plan would be consistent with the county’s alleged opposition to the new wells. It didn’t.

Harrington implied that the county had no choice but to acquiesce to DWP’s plan, stating, “The county is bound by a court-ordered settlement [i.e. the Water Agreement] and we fulfill these obligations for the joint evaluation for new wells”. This is misleading. “Joint” means Inyo has veto power over the plan – it doesn’t mean “must acquiesce to whatever DWP wants.” Inyo could have told DWP the pre-production plan was not acceptable and noted some of the deficiencies identified by the public at the Technical Group.

DWP has yet to successfully complete numerous mitigation projects. There is nothing in the Water Agreement that says, “Drilling new wells is more important than completing mitigation for impacts from existing wells.” Were the county truly opposed to the new wells it could have taken the position that work on a “joint evaluation” is premature until mitigation for existing wells is successfully completed.

One of the glaring deficiencies of the pre-construction plan is its cavalier treatment of our beautiful and highly-endangered stands of mature cottonwood and willows. In our desert climate they are some of the most humanizing features of the landscape and we are losing them at a rapid rate. According to the plan, in one parcel they will be subject to seasonal drawdowns of 2’-3’. The plan asserts “the potential impact…would be expected small” without citing any data to support this highly debatable assertion. It is not surprising to see this seat-of-the-pants analysis coming from DWP but the Water Department has no business approving it.

The cottonwood/willow example is particularly galling because the EIR to the 1991 Water Agreement asserts, “stands of tree willows and cottonwoods … will be identified by the Technical Group for monitoring purposes.” This is a broken promise. Had the Technical Group honored its obligation to conduct this monitoring, there would be plenty of data that could now be used in the pre-construction plan regarding water table drawdowns and their potential impacts on cottonwoods and willow.

While Inyo honors its obligation to work “jointly” with DWP on projects DWP wants – such as drilling new wells — Inyo rarely acts when DWP welches on its mitigation and monitoring obligations (such as the cottonwood and willow monitoring mentioned above). This asymmetry is why I have argued for years that the county is an enabler of its own abuse by DWP.

Unfortunately, this is by no means the first time the Water Department has bypassed the public and the Inyo County Water Commission to make controversial decisions. The decision to exempt lands managed under the Water Agreement from the new State Groundwater Management Act is another example, as was the decision to grant a well exemption for the Big Pine re-greening project. Both decisions were made with no opportunity for public discussion and input.

However, the buck stops with Inyo County Supervisors. They allow the Water Department to perpetuate these practices of secrecy and appeasement that have gone on for years. What will it take to get supervisors to recognize that the county is poorly-served by this behavior and new leadership is desperately needed?


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