By Deb Murphy

With the priority rating of the Owens River groundwater basin jumping from medium to high and now down to low, today’s meeting of the basin’s authority should be very interesting.

Inyo County’s Water Department Director Aaron Steinwand outlined some of the complexities of the new priority rating and decisions the Owens Valley Groundwater Authority will have to make at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. The one appealing thing about a low priority rating: the state will not hold a low priority basin’s feet to the fire.

The decision on priority ratings by the California Water Resources Agency won’t be finalized until later this month or early July. But the implications for the OVGA are far-reaching.

The OVGA has grant funding for the plan and received its first reimbursement just this week. If the basin remains at low, a Groundwater Sustainability Plan is not required, but is recommended. If the OVGA opts out of completing the GSP, Steinwand said the funding will have to be returned. That could be a problem since the reimbursement was triggered by the consultant’s, Daniel B. Stephens and Associates, first billing.

If low, the chances of additional funding could drop. But, with a GSP, the Authority can have control over any new water exports, can track individual wells, take steps to protect sensitive habitat at Fish Slough and exert control over pumping under Owens Lake.

That final can-do is complicated as the County and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power have a dispute as to whether the lake, officially owned by the State Lands Commission, is governed by the Long Term Water Agreement or, now, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. LADWP’s portion of the basin is treated as an adjudicated basin with no requirements under SGMA.

“In the end,” Steinwand summarized, “we could have an enforceable plan with control over our groundwater with no possibility of state intervention.”

Inyo’s representative on the OVGA, Dan Totheroh brought up a previous discussion of a low priority rating at an OVGA meeting. Though not an official vote, a majority of the 11-member board indicated the Authority should proceed with a plan.

While the issue is on today’s OVGA agenda, a final vote won’t really be necessary until the priority ratings are cast in stone by Water Resources.

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