Mayor Eric Garcetti proclaimed a state of emergency Monday, citing concerns that melting snowpack in the eastern Sierra Nevada could flood homes and highways in the Owens Valley and damage the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
The proclamation, which takes effect immediately and lasts seven days, is designed to help the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power protect its pumps, pipes and reservoirs in the Owens Valley and surrounding areas.
Although the head of the DWP downplayed the immediate threat level, Garcetti called the potential for infrastructure damage "very, very high," adding that he doesn't "want lives to be upended, families hurt, jobs lost because we waited too long and didn't take action."
Recent storms have dumped record levels of snow in the Sierra Nevada, helping ease the drought and swelling reservoirs. But melting snowpack and heavy rains have also sparked alarm about flooding.
Few details about the proclamation were available before Garcetti's news conference, prompting criticism from City Councilwoman Nury Martinez.
Martinez, who chairs the council's Energy and Environment committee, said her office had been seeking information about the emergency proclamation since Thursday, but hadn't received any information from the DWP.
She said she learned about it after a media advisory and in the news.
"There was no communication to the City Council or the council president in terms of this declaration," Martinez said Monday afternoon at a hearing on the emergency proclamation.
DWP General Manager David Wright said at the hearing that the proclamation "sounds more ominous" than it is, but conceded the utility had fallen short in its communications with city leaders.
"We failed," Wright told reporters after the event. "We should have spent more time briefing the City Council."
With the proclamation, which the council must renew every 14 days, the DWP can fast-track its contracting process to allow the utility to dig trenches to divert water runoff, for example. The proclamation also allows the city to seek federal and state funds.
Richard Harasick, director of water operations at the DWP, said severe flooding could cause as much as $500 million in damage at Owens Lake. He described such flooding as a potential "train wreck" the city is trying to control.
The city is legally bound to suppress airborne dust from the lake after Los Angeles drained the body of water several decades ago.
Vegetation such as saltgrass that is being used as a dust control measure at the lake would be wiped out, Harasick warned. Pipes and pumps that sprinkle the lake with water could also be damaged, he said.
The DWP said Monday's order is the first emergency proclamation the city has issued for excess snowpack runoff.
Inyo County Administrator Kevin Carunchio said the county is likely to follow with a similar emergency proclamation next week. "Everyone up here is concerned about the spring runoff," Carunchio said.
He described a worst-case scenario in which the Los Angeles Aqueduct would be damaged by floods, cutting off the water supply to the city.
Marty Adams, DWP's chief operating officer, downplayed the possibility of such an event. He said the utility is more worried about silt getting into the aqueduct and the potential for overflow.
7 p.m.: This article was updated with details from an afternoon hearing and additional reporting.