By Deb Murphy
With the Owens Valley groundwater basin status still up in the air, the groundwater authority postponed a decision on whether to stay intact for another two months.
The California Department of Water Resources has bounced the basin from medium to high and, currently, to low priority. According to Tim Ross, DWR’s senior engineering geologist, the final decision may come by August, but there’s no certainty.
Another wrinkle: while the basin may maintain its low priority for now, there’s still the possibility the priority could change in the future.
“The two counties can do their own plans and cover the basin,” Ross said. “There’s more benefit to maintaining what you have. It’s better to manage the basin that not.”
While staff from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power have kept an eye on the Owens Valley Groundwater Authority meetings, LADWP’s portion of the basin is treated as adjudicated and not required to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
Low priority basins are also not required to develop a sustainability plan with all the oversight that implies and that’s the crux of the debate. Should the OVGA disband or proceed with its grant-funded plan?
That brings up another complication. Would the OVGA be required to return the portion of the grant it has already received and used to pay the plan consultant, David B. Stephens & Associates, Inc.? Nobody really had an answer to that.
Tri-Valley Groundwater Management District, in Mono County, is the only area with production agriculture, primarily alfalfa, under SGMA. Similar operations in Inyo County are on LADWP leases. The district’s representative Dave Doonan argues he has his own motivation to maintain a sustainable water table. If the water table drops, he explained, it will not be economically feasible to continue farming.
Doonan has taken steps to maintain that water table by leasing acreage to a less thirsty crop.
However, the drop in water table under Fish Slough has been attributed to pumping in Tri-Valley and impacts to habitat is an element of prioritization under SGMA. In addition, Doonan’s water table ethic represents just one farming operation in Tri-Valley.
While rainfall and run-off have been relatively great for the last three years, that water bounty followed five years of devastating drought. If the Owens Valley aquifer is healthy now, there’s no guarantee it will continue to be healthy.
One possibility, even if some of the 10 entities that make up the OVGA opt out, is Inyo County carrying on by itself. If that happened, the elements of the final plan would be imposed on all the basin within Inyo County boundaries. Tri-Valley or Mono County could develop its own plan for that portion of the basin, but would have to coordinate with Inyo. In other words, the OVGA could sever itself but they can’t sever the basin.
Inyo representative Dan Totheroh wanted to see the potential of a decision put on the meeting agenda for August in the hope the DWR would finalize the Owens’ priority by then. Chair and Mono County representative Fred Stump preferred to continue the discussion with a decision in September, hypothetically to allow the OVGA members to take the question back to their respective boards.
The OVGA board vote went to the two-month postponement.
As the Authority continues its pattern of failure to launch, the consultant continues to put together a stakeholder engagement plan and potential associate board members continue their two-year wait for a decision on a seat at the table.