By Deb Murphy

The partners to the 1997 Memorandum of Understanding that established marching orders for the Lower Owens River Project met last Tuesday to go over the latest set of conditions and concerns. All six parties have to agree to any change to the MOU and after more than a year of meetings, the outcome is still up in the air.


The changes seem simple: drop the minimum base flow, now set at 40 cubic feet per second at the southern end of the project, and up the pumpback capacity from 50 to 75 cfs. The process of making the changes are anything but simple. The parties, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Inyo County, State Lands Commission, Sierra Club, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Owens Valley Committee, now have to go back to their respective governing boards to agree to the changes and proceed with negotiations.

And time is slipping by. The optimum time for the first pulse flows to have the desired effect is next month, when the water is still ice-cold and oxygen rich.

Each meeting has brought the partners closer to an amended MOU, but the Owens Valley Committee is still the critical piece of this puzzle. The project consultants and some of the MOU partners are in agreement that the LORP has fallen short of its goals with issues of water quality, tule invasion and new tree growth. The solution put forward over the years by Ecosystem Sciences would more closely resemble the flows in a natural river with low flows during the winter matched with high pulse flows in addition to the seasonal flows. But, the devil’s in the details.

On the table at Tuesday’s meeting were a hydrograph of the proposed flows and language outlining the changes and conditions from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The partners had comments and issues, described as non-show-stopping; the OVC came with their conditions released in late February. OVC met Tuesday evening with no vote taken. “We weren’t ready,” said President Mary Roper. Two OVC board members got a closer look at LORP issues late last week. Another board member is out of the country until early next week. “We just have to wait and see,” said Roper. “Our board is divided, I’m not sure how the vote will go.”

One of OVC’s concerns is the possibility of LADWP drilling new wells east of the river and using the project as a water conveyance to Los Angeles. In a phone interview late last year, Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta said LADWP “has no designs or plans to do that.” But, the City won’t cede its water rights in the valley, citing the city charter. Section 673(b) of the charter states that a two-thirds vote of registered voters have to approve any sale, lease or disposal of LA’s water and water rights.

Sierra Club agrees with LADWP and the consultants on the need for the changes, according to attorney Larry Silver. The changes “might happen,” he said in a phone interview, “with further refinement.” Like OVC, Sierra Club’s major concerns are additional groundwater wells and a limit on what goes into the aqueduct. “The basic commitment of the MOU has to be kept,” he said. Bishop’s Mark Bagley was more direct “Sierra Club issues can be worked out,” he said. Bagley echoed OVC’s conditions that the flow through the islands section of the river north of Lone Pine and the channel from the Alabama Gates be included in a feasibility study. “We don’t enter into agreements (with LADWP) unless it’s in court documents,” he said.

According to Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington, one aspect of the agreement that needs work is conditions under which any agreement is terminated.

Another fly in this ointment is the possibility that some partner governing boards may not be able to meet and vote in time for an April flushing flow. State Lands Commissioners don’t have a scheduled meeting until April 23, according to Sheri Pemberton, the Commission’s public information officer. “If all the parties are in agreement,” she said, “we can look into a special meeting.” The Commission’s noticing requirements are seven days prior to the meetng.

LADWP and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife could not be reached for comment.

While 40 cfs seems reasonably low, it takes 90 cfs at the northern end of the project to get to that 40 cfs 62-miles south at the pumpback station. Increasing the pumpback capacity would help LADWP maintain “water neutrality” (no more water will go down the Owens with the new flow regime than has been used in the past). The high capacity will put water back into the aqueduct rather than having the excess spill out into the Owens Delta during a time of year when the water is considered wasted. What was once a series of pools and ponds in the Delta now looks like a tule farm gone wild.

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