By Deb Murphy
The decision to go high or low was more than a political strategy popularized by Michele Obama. For the Owens Valley Groundwater Authority it represented a total commitment to groundwater sustainability under state regulations.
Here’s the deal: the Owens Valley groundwater basin was ranked as a medium priority, requiring the development of a groundwater agency and sustainability plan. Local use would have landed the basin in the low category but the exports by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power landed the valley in the medium range.
Then the State Department of Water Resources took a second look and Owens Valley was elevated to high. Looking at the first seven of eight guidelines for prioritization, Owens would have sank to low. However, 8c slapped 42 extra points on basins from which water was exported.
Whether the elephant in the room, or a fly in the ointment, LADWP’s management of its part of the basin was beyond the control of the OVGA. Adjudicated districts are exempt from the mandates in the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The Long Term Water Agreement, though not the same as adjudication, allowed LADWP to be exempt as well. The basin’s other water agencies are now left to develop a plan to attain sustainability with absolute no control over LADWP’s operations.
The mandates are the same for either medium or high rankings. Low priority basins have the option of forming an agency and a plan, but the SWRCB won’t lower the hammer if that plan falls short of goal.
The one downside of a low priority basin that chooses to maintain an agency and develop a sustainability plan could be a lack of state grant funding.
Inyo County Water Department staff drafted a letter for approval at Wednesday’s OVGA meeting requesting a low priority. That letter outlined serious procedural issues with the new ranking, ending with a request to be reprioritized, but from medium to low priority.
After an impassioned public comment period against going low and comments from 10 board members, none of whom wanted to disband the OVGA, Inyo representative Dan Totheroh moved to take the “ask” out of the letter. “I’ve always felt if you don’t agree with the process,” he said, “you try to change the process.” His motion was to send the letter but ask, instead, for an explanation for the new ranking based on the portion of the basin the OVGA has jurisdiction over.
In other words, ask the DWR to take a second look at its logic but the OVGA would accept that decision, be it high, low or medium.
The motion was approved by eight of the 10 authority members; Big Pine and Indian Creek-Westridge Community Service Districts both voted no. Indian Creek’s Luis Elias was comfortable with a medium ranking, but not with high or low. Bryanna Vaughan from Big Pine referred to the number of people speaking to the issue. “When you put ‘low’ on the agenda,” she said, “people show up. They care.” Vaughan didn’t want to risk a low prioritization. “The data available will help with sustainability,” she said. Realizing the OVGA members have to impose on their water users, Vaughan didn’t want to risk losing access to state grant funding.
OVGA Chair Fred Stump expressed his concern for Tri-Valley Groundwater Management District members, primarily agricultural users. The district’s rep, Dave Doonan, was in Redding with the White Mountain Fire Protection District and absent from the meeting. He had often stressed Tri-Valley members’ were different than residential water users; their livelihoods depended on the water. In the end, Stump said he “had to do what he could to remove the threat of state intervention” in Tri-Valley.
All the speakers wanted the board to keep the high priority ranking. Sally Manning went one step farther, asking the board to request a de-adjudication of LADWP.
“DWP sees something here to cause a high priority,” said Paul Huette of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley. “In your hearts you know this.” Mary Roper with the Owens Valley Committee saw the issue as a struggle between public trust and the concept of the greatest good for the greatest number. Both she and Nancy Masters asked the OVGA to take the side of the minority in this struggle.