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Judge rules against Los Angeles in Long Valley irrigation fight

A river winds through wetlands and pastures
The Owens River flows through wetlands and pastures near Benton Crossing in Mono County recently.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

A judge has ordered the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to continue providing historic quantities of irrigation water to lessees of its pasturelands east of Yosemite, despite the agency’s assertion that climate change is making water resources in the Sierra Nevada watershed increasingly unreliable.

Alameda County Judge Evelio Grillo’s ruling could have significant implications for water agencies statewide as they face the complex challenges of servicing ratepayers and meeting environmental requirements in a time of rising temperatures, drought, dwindling snowpack and changing water availability.

The case was brought in a lawsuit filed against the city of Los Angeles by Mono County and the Sierra Club and was triggered by new leases the LADWP proposed in 2018 indicating that ranchers on its 6,400 acres in Long Valley should expect little to no irrigation water when they renew, according to court documents.

The plaintiffs argued that making significant changes in water management policies without first conducting an environmental review of the consequences was a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.

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Grillo agreed. In a recent ruling, Grillo ordered the DWP to continue providing lessees with about 3.2 acre-feet of water per acre, per year until it completes an environmental review.

In a statement following the order, the DWP said it was concerned the ruling “could set a precedent for all water agencies trying to responsibly manage environmental needs and water operations when faced with volatile water supply conditions and a changing climate reality.”

“What the ruling neglects to recognize is that a water system simply cannot be static,” the statement read. “Every year, LADWP must adapt its water operations to respond to changes in weather, be it wet or dry, and the needs of the environment and communities we serve.”

“Our operations in Mono County,” it added, “have always been and continue to be a reflection of changing factors that any responsible agency must consider including annual runoff, storage capacity, environmental needs and more.”

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Extreme weather conditions are making it harder for Los Angeles to meet state and federal requirements and court settlements in the highly litigated Sierra watershed.

Recent scientific studies suggest meteorological trends are likely to accelerate in decades to come. The implications stretch from Owens Lake north to Mono Lake, the high-desert water body east of Yosemite National Park best known for its cragged and towering tufa formations.

A bitter history also confounds problem solving along the eastern Sierra.

The DWP’s diversions after the turn of the last century, critics say, helped set the stage for major air pollution problems at Mono Lake and at Owens Lake, about 140 miles to the south.

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In the early 1900s, city agents posed as ranchers and farmers to buy land and water rights. Then the DWP built dams and diversions that drained Owens Lake and made it all but impossible for the region’s ranchers and farmers to make a living.

More recently, DWP ratepayers have spent at least $1.4 billion for vegetation, gravel, furrowing and shallow flooding that have reduced dust pollution on the Owens Lake playa by more than 99% — the largest dust mitigation effort in the United States. Each year, that project uses about 60,000 acre-feet of water worth about $42 million, officials said.

An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover a football field one foot deep. An average Los Angeles household uses about an acre-foot of water for indoor and outdoor use.

In 2018, Mono County complained that the DWP’s proposed changes on leased lands that are also habitat for the rare bi-state sage grouse appeared “to be part of a larger plan by the city to completely discontinue water deliveries to the eastern Sierra,” according to court documents.

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“We take this to mean that the city plans to increase exports of eastern Sierra Nevada water by reducing or completely discontinuing deliveries to Mono County ranches and habitat,” the county said in court papers.

Siding with the county, the California Natural Resources Agency criticized what it described as “potentially devastating impacts to the natural environment, habitat and wildlife if the LADWP pursues its proposal to upend 70 years of water management policy and practice by eliminating irrigation and stock water from its ranch leases.”

DWP responded by saying it had no intention of “de-watering Mono County” and would continue to provide water to protect the environment.

However, it also said, “The free water LADWP has provided to commercial ranchers is separate and unrelated to the water LADWP provides to serve the region’s environment — in fact diverting less water for commercial ranching may have additional environmental benefits for Mono County,” according to court papers.

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Before approving new leases, the LADWP said it would complete a full environmental impact report, according to court documents.

Grillo, however, determined that the DWP had already commenced changes in water use without an environmental review, as required under the California Environmental Quality Act, through the proposed new leases announced in 2018.

Water experts expressed mixed feelings about Grillo’s ruling.

Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager at the California State Water Resources Control Board, suggested that it underscored how the California Environmental Quality Act “could be used as a blunt instrument that can kill opportunities. It’s not up to the task of confronting the complex and cumulative challenges facing water utilities.”

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Peter Gleick, a climate and water scientist at the Pacific Institute, a water think tank, however, said the case demonstrated how the law “can be used as a modern tool to try and address past environmental mismanagement in a state where the history of water comes with some very ugly politics.”

Looking ahead, Stacey Simon, an attorney representing Mono County, said, “I hope that Mono County and Los Angeles can work together in the future to ensure that water supply decisions respect and protect the valuable resources of Mono County while contributing to the need of the City for a safe and reliable water supply.”


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