In a brief court hearing today, Mono County Judge Stan Eller confirmed his tentative decision – the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power case that attacks Mammoth’s water rights will stay in Mono County with an assigned, neutral judge. Jonah Matthewson covered this story for Sierra Wave Media, with a camera in the courtroom.
The courtroom was packed and the court opened up another room for the overflow crowd. The audio of the hearing was piped into that room. Community leaders and citizens responded to the call for action from Mammoth Community Water District Manager Greg Norby who had asked them to show up for the hearing with a show of support to keep this critical court fight in Mono County.
LADWP attorneys had filed a motion to move both water lawsuits to Fresno County. At the start of the hearing, Judge Stan Eller disclosed that when he was Mono County District Attorney he handled cases against LADWP on Rush Creek and the Owens Gorge. He said he has been a local resident since 1982 and is a customer of Mammoth Community Water District. Judge Eller said, “In spite that, I can be fair and impartial.”
The DWP lawyers presented their points on moving the case to Fresno as a neutral forum – it’s closer for them, has a better airport and has qualified environmental law judges. But, then, the LA lawyer surprised the crowd when he said that there were a lot of people in the courtroom with a lot of interest and it would be okay with LA if the court brought in a different judge. The water district was fine with that.
Judge Eller said he already intended to keep the case in Mono County and get another judge. In fact, the Judge said he had already contacted the Administrative Office of the Courts about getting an assigned judge.
The judge set another appearance for May 10 at 9:30am in Mammoth Court to reveal the identity of an assigned judge. This hearing may be the easy part in what could be a very difficult and costly legal fight for Mammoth Lakes. LA contends they have the rights to Mammoth Creek water. Mammoth Creek provides half to three-fourths of the Town’s supply and is the largely consistent supply. Without it, the Town could not exist as it is today.
So far, LA has offered no reasonable settlement in the view of Mammoth Community Water District. They want Mammoth to find a water supply and pay for the amount of water LA is not getting from Mammoth Creek – this in perpetuity. MCWD Manager Greg Norby said that’s not possible. The some 2600 acre feet per year that Mammoth uses out of Mammoth Creek would cost roughly $2 million per year to replace. Norby has met with DWP staff in Bishop and will continue to try to negotiate a resolution. Letters from Mammoth and Mono County will go to LA’s mayor and city council asking them for a peaceful end to this fight.
Thursday afternoon, following the hearing, LADWP issued a news release in which they claim that their intent is not to “stop all Mammoth Creek and groundwater use by Mammoth.” However, the release goes on to say that “LADWP holds senior water rights to Mammoth Creek which must be protected.” (See entire LADWP press release below)
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Statement on the legal dispute with the Mammoth Community Water District
April 12, 2012 Contact: Chris Plakos 760-873-0264
Because of the strong local Eastern Sierra interest surrounding a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power legal challenge to action taken by the Mammoth Community Water District, at a Court hearing in Mammoth Lakes on April 12 the LADWP offered to have the case heard in Mono County with the provision that a neutral judge preside as mandated by State law. All parties agreed to the stipulation and a May 10 date was agreed to for a new judge to be announced by the Court and a trial hearing date set.
At the hearing today the attorney for the MCWD stated that the legal action by LADWP is an attempt to stop all Mammoth Creek and groundwater use by Mammoth. The LADWP would like to make clear that this is not the intent and furthermore, is not what the LADWP’s legal challenge is about. The legal action is about the MCWD’s legal obligation under the California Environmental Quality Act and their requirements to prepare an adequate Urban Water Management Plan.
In December 2011, the LADWP took legal action to challenge a decision by MCWD to finalize an Environmental Impact Report concerning Mammoth Creek flows, which is based upon using water from Mammoth Creek to meet the town’s future growth.
As the EIR was being developed by the MCWD, the LADWP was up front and repeatedly informed MCWD that Los Angeles’ Mammoth Creek water rights are senior to the MCWD’s. Since 2005 the LADWP has provided numerous written and verbal comments to the MCWD about Los Angeles’ Mammoth Creek and Owens River water rights. The legal action taken by LADWP should come as no surprise to MCWD or anyone familiar with this issue.
The LADWP has repeatedly held meetings, discussions and exchanged information with the MCWD to try to reach an agreement. Unfortunately these attempts have proved unsuccessful so the LADWP was left with no choice but to take legal action to protect its water rights.
The MCWD has been drafting water from Mammoth Creek based upon water right permits and licenses granted by the State Water Resources Control Board, including temporary permits. However, the LADWP holds senior water rights to Mammoth Creek which must be protected.
Extensive investigations by the LADWP show that Los Angeles has senior water rights to Mammoth Creek flows based upon the City’s 1905 Owens River water rights filing and the LADWP’s 1967 purchase of Chance Ranch, located just south of the Town, and its associated 1893 water rights. With the finalization of its EIR last year, the MCWD began the process of making those permits and licenses permanent.
The LADWP understands the goal of the Town of Mammoth Lakes is to develop to its full potential and provide much-needed recreational opportunities for millions of visitors, and a stable economic base and lifestyle for local residents. The LADWP will continue to work with MCWD officials to seek a fair solution that both communities can live with.