By Deb Murphy

The Owens Valley has seen a pattern over the last two years—and not just in terms of below normal snow pack and precipitation.

It goes something like this: The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power comes out with a predictably unacceptable to Inyo County solution to water shortages, focusing on reductions to irrigation and mitigation projects. The County expresses varying degrees of outrage and LADWP comes back at a Standing Committee session with something more acceptable.

Last year, with historically low runoff, cuts to irrigation and mitigation projects were bearable due in large part to timely rain in May and water made available from savings on Owens Lake.

This Thursday, the Standing Committee will determine just how bearable the cuts will be this summer. If Los Angeles and Inyo County representatives on the committee don’t agree on what’s reasonable, there will be no cuts at all per the Long Term Water Agreement. Following Tuesday’s Talking Water Workshop at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting, it’s safe to say the latter would be considered reasonable.

The issue this year is LADWP’s plan for “reasonable reductions” to irrigation and mitigation projects, calling for a 30-percent cut based on degree of drought and number of consecutive drought years.

Water Director Bob Harrington started the workshop with the hard numbers: a range of 31,500 acre-feet to 32,700 a-f, depending on the starting point—either the 45,000 a-f LADWP indicated was the maximum water available or the 1981 baseline of 46,680 a-f. Either one of those potential allotments are the lowest since the 1985-86 runoff year. The average since 1985 is 47,861 a-f.

Harrington threw in another number from the 1991 Environmental Impact Report. LADWP cut the leased acreage from 21,800 to 11,600 acres in the 1960s, guaranteeing that those acres would receive 5 a-f per acre going forward, even in dry years. The EIR confirms that arrangement, hypothetically setting the bar for leased land water supplies at 58,000 a-f.

LADWP had a different interpretation of the agreement’s mandates, citing the requirements for reasonable reduction from the Green Book: water use, supply and conservation in Los Angeles; flows in the LA Aqueduct; surface water runoff conditions; level of groundwater extractions and extent of well turn-offs implemented for purposes of environmental protection.

According to Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta and LADWP’s Eric Tillemans, all those criteria have been met. Yannotta did concede irrigation numbers “were up for discussion.”

Then the public and Supervisor comments started, all on the side of no cuts to ag leases. LADWP’s plan was based on models developed in San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys.

Inyo/Mono Ag Commissioner Nate Reade pointed out both valleys had much more flexibility, specifically, the ability to switch out crops, planting fewer acres in higher value commodities.

That’s not the case with ag leases in Inyo. “Losses in 2014 were 15-percent in Inyo and 23-percent in Mono,” Reade said. “We’ve just got the preliminary numbers for the 2015 Ag Report, but we’ll be in double digit losses again.”

Supervisor Mark Tillemans tore into what he described as LADWP’s “central command.” “We’re suffering from a 100-year man-made drought,” he said. “Central command has to be held accountable. We can’t talk about reductions until you bring the water table to baseline and finish mitigation.”

The Board agreed it could not support the plan for reasonable reduction as presented. Yannotta committed to bring another plan to Thursday’s Standing Committee, scheduled for Independence, in the Supervisors’ chambers at 1 p.m.

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