The latest chapter in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's battles over water in East
By JIM MATTHEWS
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has announced that water historically used to irrigate over 6,000 acres of pasture for cattle grazing along the upper Owens River surrounding Crowley Lake in south Mono County will likely not be available to the cattle leases in the future. The move will dry up thousands of acres of wet meadows, but it will benefit fisheries in the watershed affected by diversions.
In a nutshell, those are the facts surrounding the latest dustup between the City of Los Angeles and everyone else concerned with water from Mono Lake to Owens Dry Lake in the Eastern Sierra Nevada.
Call this latest adventure, Chapter 10,861 in the Eastern Sierra Water Wars, begun when the first land was purchased by the City of Los Angeles to claim all the water rights in the region and send that water south via the Owens Valley Aqueduct. The diversion have dried up Owens (Dry) Lake and nearly dried up Mono Lake. There have been millions of stores written, along with more than one book, about these water battles and the environmental disasters the diversions caused.
So you will likely read two seemingly opposite headlines and stories slanting this news. One headline will scream, “Los Angeles planning to destroy wildlife habitat and ranching in south Mono County.” The other is likely to say, “Owens Valley water conservation to benefit Los Angeles water users and region’s fisheries.”
Both have gems of truth to them, and some of the LADWP’s usual foes are lined up against them in this battle – Mono County, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and the state of California’s Natural Resources Agency. Read that last one again: our state’s National Resources Agency – not the Department of Fish and Wildlife, but its parent agency, which hints there is something big and political behind this battle. Nothing new there, I guess.
Yet, some of this is very curious, and I find myself siding with the LADWP on an issue for the first time in – well – ever.
One the environmental side, I’ve read the comments from Mono County about the likely damage the cessation of flood irrigating will have on “approximately 6,400 acres of agricultural lands in Mono County – thereby increasing the risk of wildfire, destroying wetlands and riparian areas, devastating important habitat for sensitive species such as the Bi-State Sage Grouse, reversing more than 70 years of LADWP water management policy and, and undermining the agricultural economy, heritage, and tradition of both Mono and Inyo Counties,” according to a special page on the Mono County website to “ask LADWP to do the right thing.”
The letter from John Laird, secretary of the state National Resources Agency, said almost exactly the same thing. The Audubon letter focused on potential loss to sage grouse, as did the Sierra Club’s letter. However, the Sierra Club letter had a curious paragraph, talking about how the “Department of Water and Power has a long history of subverting the needs of Eastern Sierrans. All residents of Mono and Inyo Counties will be affected if the tax revenue from cattle grazing is eliminated. Land use changes will impact our environment as wetlands dry up.”
The environmental community has had a long-standing hate-hate relationship with cattle ranching community, and it is curious they are coming to their aid on this issue. Throughout the long legal and political battles that reduced diversions and restored water to Mono Lake’s tributaries to protect those basin creek’s fisheries, the battle that forced the agency to rewater the Owens River Gorge below Crowley Lake, and most recently to add a flushing-flow water release regime in the Gorge, there were the hated cattle ranchers. The LADWP and ranchers were forced to screen diversions so trout fry weren’t diverted out into pasture, and they had to protect riparian areas to stabilize banks and improve riparian habitat. Even after they did all this for fisheries, the environmentalists wanted the cows off the landscape to protect sage grouse and sage habitat, which truly has been devastated by decades of overgrazing during drought years and stocking rates unsupportable by the habitat. Yet, even where these concerns were addressed, the environmental community wanted the non-native cattle removed.
So the Resources Agency and environmental groups coming out in favor of diverting water from streams and rivers to protect cattle and tax revenue just sounds fishy. From what I know about sage grouse, the problem for them in Long Valley (the upper Owens where Crowley Lake sits) is still cattle grazing and poor quality habitat caused by a combination of drought and cows. It’s not a lack of wet meadows – and the LADWP already has agreements to help protect and enhance those for the grouse.
And where are the aquatic conservation groups on this issue? The response from California Trout, Trout Unlimited, and others has been deafening by its absence. You’d think they would be rejoicing on seeing more consistent water flows in the streams in Long Valley.
So all this is very curious to me.
The LADWP actually made sense in its recent press release about the slowing and likely ending of these water diversions on both environmental points and economic points.
On the environment, the agency wrote “returning the land to its natural state likely would have many benefits similar to the dramatic environmental benefits seen on the Mono Basin. Restoring the natural hydrography to the streams and creeks in Long Valley, which have been degraded by years of water diversions, could substantially benefit the fisheries and riparian habitat found along those waterways.” Of course, they don’t mention they had to be sued repeatedly to make that change in the Mono Basin.
On the economic side, the LADWP points out not diverting water for flood irrigation for cattle grass would increase the available water to Los Angeles residents by an average of more than 24,000 acre feet of water per year (enough for 65,000 homes for a year). This water was given “virtually free” to the ranchers for decades, so the move really benefits Los Angeles residents, although realistically it is a minuscule benefit in the scheme of things.
(Just as a side note, costs for an acre foot of water for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have risen from $70 an acre foot in 2001 to over $1,100 per acre foot, if it is available at all. Subtracting treatment fees, delivery, and service fees charged by water agencies, the average urban consumer pays about $130 to $150 per acre foot of water or .0003 to .0004 dollars per gallon. )
So I have no idea what is really going on here. It seems like there could be two issues: First, some politically well-connected cattle ranchers are angry with the LADWP for doing away with their lucrative, sweetheart water deal. This would explain why Sacramento became so heavily involved. Second, Mono and Inyo county politicians are really annoyed about the reduction of tax revenue Los Angeles will pay to their counties on over 6,000 acres and have rallied their local troops in the environmental community and Sacramento politician to fight a reduction in their revenue.
Are there serious resource issues? For me, the jury is still out on that issue. I frankly don’t see it, and it could have a great fishery upside.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.