Historic Drought Requires Historic Solutions
Op-Ed by Amanda Parsons, LADWP Spokesperson
When gazing at the Sierra Nevada Mountains this year there is a harsh reality staring back: California is in the midst of a four-year drought – a drought so dire that it is unparalleled by any in the recorded history of the State. Snow pack in the Eastern Sierra was measured at only 4 percent of normal and runoff this year is only 36 percent of normal, far shattering the previous lowest year.
Many in the community are pleased that virtually no water from the LA Aqueduct will be exported south of Owens Lake, likely until November. But the harsh reality is, this year, there simply is not enough water to meet all of our obligations in the Owens Valley for the environment, local agriculture, tribal lands, irrigation, stockwater, recreation, and dust mitigation on Owens Lake. This reality is further complicated by the fact that required legal obligations and stipulated judgments have bound the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to use what little water is available to fulfill certain mandates, causing others to receive less.
For those who attended the County Board of Supervisors workshop meeting last Tuesday to discuss the lack of water, we want to thank you for voicing your opinions and making yourself heard. Constructive suggestions were brought up by the County Supervisors and the community.
Jim Yannotta, LADWP Manager of Aqueduct, is pleased to report that with cooperation of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (Great Basin), irrigation to LADWP leaseholders will not be shut off on May 1st as previously considered. This collaboration between Great Basin and LADWP allowed us to reach a mutually agreed upon solution for water savings on Owens Lake this spring, providing additional water for irrigation to continue for the near term, and helping local agriculture and the Owens Valley economy in the process.
This agreement with Great Basin couldn’t have been achieved without the help of the community and their participation in this complicated discussion. As the discussion continues, there is opportunity for further water savings that could be made available for irrigation or other uses. However, several questions remain in the community – questions about LADWP’s timing, reasoning, and numbers.
We understand that the timing of our letter to our leaseholders notifying them of our need to shut off irrigation water appears to have been done with too short of notice.
LADWP wants to emphasize that staff made efforts prior to the release of that letter to alert our stakeholders of the impacts this drought would have on local operations. A letter was sent to all our leaseholders in March informing them that irrigation amounts would be greatly reduced this year. We also invited a number of the members of the ranching community to our Bishop office almost two weeks ago once the final runoff numbers for this year were calculated showing an extreme shortage of water and lack of water for irrigation. The Department’s Annual Owens Valley Operations Plan is due to Inyo County on April 20 each year. Immediately, discussion with Inyo County Water Department and County officials ensued regarding the severity of the situation.
Continuing irrigation on our lease lands at the level it occurred during April would leave the Department short of water to meet all demands and our many legal obligations. LADWP staff worked to find solutions, but once the reality of the long list of legal obligations the Department faces came in to play, we had to show in the Operations Plan where the extremely limited amount of water would be used on LA-owned lands. Unless we neglected our legal requirements to the environment and for clean air by controlling dust on Owens Lake, we would not have enough water available for both the agricultural/ranching economy and environmental obligations in this Valley. We needed to inform all of the lessees as soon as possible about this dire situation.
As for our numbers provided in the Operations Plan, every year water engineers across the globe account for a certain amount of losses from snow pack to tap. These losses can be attributed to ground infiltration, evaporation, plant transpiration, etc. This year, LADWP’s Water Engineers predicted a loss of 119,400 acre feet as this water seeps into the ground of the Owens Valley, evaporates into the air of the Owens Valley, is transpired by plants in the Owens Valley, and is used by private landholders in the Owens Valley.
To put that into context, during the last runoff year – the second-lowest year ever – 147,000 acre feet was lost due to these miscellaneous uses and losses. The Inyo/Los Angeles Water Agreement signed in 1991 by both the City of Los Angeles and the County accounted for 122,000 acre feet for these uses and losses. Both the City and County have operated under this mutually agreed upon expectation, derived from historical averages, for over twenty years. LADWP’s predicted loss amount is considerably less than last year’s actual losses. Meaning LADWP’s meager predictions for available water in the Valley and for export may be further reduced as the year progresses.
Each Annual Operations Plan is calculated using a runoff-year, April 1 through March 31. In order to account for our annual allotment numbers, predictions must be made for the second half of the runoff year, October through March. In our predictions LADWP is forecasting normal winter precipitation levels during the remainder of this runoff year. The 2015-16 Plan states LADWP will deliver 42,000 acre feet of water from the Eastern Sierra to LA this runoff year (10,000 of which is already in storage from previous years and is not a result of current runoff). This represents only about 15 percent of the Eastern Sierra water that is typically exported to Los Angeles. However, if we do not achieve normal precipitation levels during that period, then less water will come down the creeks next winter and less will be available to the Owens Valley and Los Angeles.
Although this reality is far from ideal for any of us, it has resulted in a positive outcome to address this critical situation in the near term thanks to responses from the community, the Inyo County Board of Supervisors and Great Basin.
For better or worse, Los Angeles is connected to the Eastern Sierra by the aqueduct that binds us. We are a huge part of the Valley’s history, the reason for its pristine present, and a valuable partner in the shaping of its successful future.
This is the worst drought on record. Los Angeles is feeling its impacts just like the Owens Valley, and the rest of California. We are all in this together. If we continue to work collaboratively, listen to one another and accept the current reality, together we can develop productive solutions to this unprecedented situation. Let’s make history together.
Amanda Parsons is the Public Relations Representative from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in the Owens Valley. If you have any questions regarding this issue or any LADWP operations, please don’t hesitate to contact her. She can be reached at 760-873-0264 or