Surface Water Management
One of the main points of contention in the 19 years of litigation leading to the 1991 Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) was how much land DWP would irrigate. DWP had already dried up thousands of acres of irrigated land since the early 1900’s and Inyo County wanted to protect what remained of its agricultural economy.
The LTWA requires DWP to continue “past practices” with regard to all surface water flows. It further states DWP is required to provide sufficient water to irrigators so they can “continue water-related uses” as they did in 1982. The Agreement also states that the Standing Committee may agree to reduce irrigation in drought years. Inyo County and DWP jointly comprise the Standing Committee, which means DWP cannot unilaterally reduce irrigation.
The Inyo County Water Department, which has spent large amounts of time and energy monitoring vegetation in wellfields, makes no effort (as of 2015) to monitor how much water DWP provides for irrigation. The Water Department reasons that irrigators themselves pay close attention to this.
Most irrigators do, in fact, pay close attention and know when they are not receiving the water to which they are entitled. Unfortunately, most irrigators have short term DWP leases, and fear if they complain publically about insufficient water they may have difficulty renewing their leases.
As of 2015 there are two well-documented cases of lessees being denied irrigation water. Neither Inyo County nor DWP has made any effort to solve these problems. There are many more complaints made in private about irrigation reductions, but most irrigators are afraid to seek redress by publicly insisting DWP comply with the terms of the LTWA.
In 2005 DWP attempted to bribe irrigators to use less water. It offered to finance sprinkler irrigation systems if irrigators would accept a reduced volume of irrigation water, thereby allowing DWP to export more water down the aqueduct. DWP called this “water conservation.” Inyo County objected and the disagreement was never resolved.
In 2014 DWP changed the terms of its standard lease to include stockwater in the total amount of water provided for irrigation. Historically, stock water had been a separate item. This had the effect of reducing the amount of water available to each lease, in obvious violation of the LTWA. Inyo County wrote a letter of objection but no DWP response has ever been released to the public. The Owens Valley Committee asked Inyo Supervisors to agendize a discussion of this issue in spring 2014 but Inyo Supervisors never responded.
In late April 2015, DWP informed lessees it planned to discontinue supplying all irrigation water as of May 1, 2015 notwithstanding the fact that it had more than enough water stored in Long Valley Reservoir to supply its 2015 irrigation obligations. Inyo County threatened to seek an injunction and DWP rescinded its decision. For the remainder of the 2015-2016 irrigation season the Standing Committee made a series of month-by-month decisions to continue supplying irrigation water, though it has yet to be determined exactly how much water was supplied.
Surface water for certain “enhancement-mitigation” projects is another area of contention. Some projects are supplied by wells. Because DWP pumps so much groundwater, some of these wells go into “off” status under the on/off protocol. This requires DWP to supply the projects with surface water. DWP tracks the volume of surface water and claim Inyo “owes” this volume of water to DWP. DWP’s claim is not based on anything in the LTWA and is not recognized by Inyo. However, each year the volume DWP claims it is “owed” increases, and DWP has threatened to initiate a formal dispute over the issue.
The volume of water DWP claims to be “owed” is best understood as one more measure of DWP’s excessive pumping. The reason pumps go into off status is because DWP chooses to pump excessively. Until DWP reduces its pumping on a valley-wide scale and allows much more water table recovery, wells will continue to be in “off” status and DWP will have to continue to use surface water for some mitigation projects.