Letter to the editor: DWP view of Owens Valley debunked

by Daniel Pritchett, Bishop

groundwater_pump_349-2.jpgLast month James Yannotta wrote letter in which he asserted there were misconceptions about DWP management under the Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA). Mr. Yannotta’s letter showed him to be a worthy successor to the previous LA Aqueduct Manager, Gene Coufal, as he recycled some of the same meaningless statements, misleading comparisons, and lies, first produced under Mr. Coufal’s leadership over a decade ago. Comments on four of Mr. Yannotta’s statements are given below.

A) Currently, based on vegetation parcels monitored by LADWP throughout the Owens Valley, total live vegetation cover in LADWP’s wellfields is approximately 34% compared to 35% in these same parcels during 1984-87, which is a period of time which is used for comparison according to the Water Agreement.

There is nothing in the LTWA that calls for averaging parcels as an appropriate way to determine whether management goals are being met. To the contrary, averaging is like squinting: it only gives a very hazy idea of what things look like. For example, if one parcel has 50% cover and the other has 20% cover, the average is 35%; the 20% parcel may be a disaster but this fact is not disclosed by simply providing an average of the two parcels.

DWP baseline data for vegetation management are based on parcels: areas of homogeneous vegetation ranging from a few acres to several hundred acres. The LTWA technical appendix (the Green Book) also calls for monitoring “vegetation of significant environmental value” even smaller than individual parcels: stands of cottonwoods and willows, for example, and riparian areas around springs and seeps. To describe vegetation conditions under the LTWA, the appropriate scale of analysis is the scale of the baseline data: specific parcels and the even smaller areas of environmentally significant vegetation.

DWP refuses to conduct analyses at the appropriate scale. Under Gene Coufal, DWP pooled parcel data into arbitrary groups and gave an average for each group.         Now Mr. Yannotta is one-upping Mr. Coufal by pooling all monitored parcels in the entire valley and producing a single number. If it is possible to have degrees of meaninglessness, this is even more meaningless than the numbers produced under Mr. Coufal’s management. That is a real achievement!

A final problem is that Mr. Yannotta cites DWP’s own data. The Technical Group has never approved DWP’s monitoring protocol. DWP only began monitoring a few years ago and for several years refused to even admit it was doing so. If Mr. Yannotta wished to make a defensible statement about vegetation he would have presented a parcel-by-parcel analysis based on data gathered by the Inyo County Water Department according to the protocol in the Green Book Section I, which DWP approved. He would have also provided an analysis of the “vegetation of significant environmental value” called for in the Green Book.

B) This year, LADWP anticipates pumping in the range of 71,000 to 79,000 acre-feet. Last year groundwater pumping was just under 89,000 acre-feet. Comparing this to past groundwater pumping which during 1984-87 averaged 112,000 acre-feet per year shows that LADWP is being responsible with groundwater pumping in the Owens Valley.

This is an intentionally misleading comparison. Instead of comparing 2013 pumping with the 1984-87 average (which included one of the highest pumping years in history) a more useful comparison would be to compare 2013 pumping with the USGS ceiling for long term pumping. The USGS ceiling is its estimate of the maximum long term pumping which would keep water tables shallow enough to sustain vegetation as mapped in the mid 1980’s baseline period. This ceiling is 70,000 af/yr of pumping. A case can be made that this ceiling is too high, but it is the only such ceiling published, and the USGS was accepted as a neutral third party by both Inyo and DWP when the LTWA was being negotiated.

When 2013 pumping is compared with the USGS ceiling, we see even in this just-about-driest-year- ever, DWP pumping will still exceed the USGS ceiling.

The other important comparison for evaluating DWP’s pumping is the comparison between DWP’s long term average pumping and the USGS ceiling. DWP’s long term average is about 90,000 af/yr, which is about 30% higher than the USGS ceiling of 70,000 af/yr. The discrepancy between the USGS ceiling and the DWP actual long term pumping means that water tables cannot be high enough, on a valley- wide scale, to sustain vegetation as mapped in the mid-1980’s baseline period used for vegetation management under the LTWA.

C) All wellfields have groundwater levels that are higher than when the Water Agreement was enacted.

This is a misleading comparison because it is meaningless for management purposes. When the Water Agreement was enacted in 1991, water tables were at historic lows due to DWP’s orgy of over-pumping in 1987-1989. To meet LTWA goals, the important question is whether water tables are high enough to sub-irrigate vegetation — not whether they are higher than they were in 1991. Unless water tables are sufficiently high to maintain water in the vegetation rooting zone, it will be impossible to maintain baseline vegetation conditions. As noted above, the fact that actual average long term pumping exceeds the USGS ceiling by ~30% shows that water tables cannot be high enough, on a valley-wide scale, to comply with the Water Agreement vegetation management requirement of maintaining baseline vegetation conditions. The water table under Blackrock 94 is a case in point.

D) Blackrock is performing as expected 21 years ago and was mitigated for by providing a fish hatchery and the Lower Owens River Project. LADWP is willing to work jointly with Inyo County to resolve any issues at Blackrock.

These are the same arguments Gene Coufal used in response to the first written complaint 6 years ago,

1) …performing as expected 21 years ago This statement is either an admission of bad faith or an error. If DWP expected to destroy the meadow at Blackrock 94 twenty-one years ago, signing the LTWA was an act of bad faith, because the LTWA commits DWP to “avoid” precisely the meadow destruction DWP has now caused at Blackrock 94 due to its excessive pumping.

It is more likely that Mr. Yannotta simply got his numbers wrong. He meant to say “performing as expected 37 years ago.” Thirty-seven years ago (1976) was when DWP issued its first EIR for the second barrel of the Aqueduct. This EIR predicted that pumping-induced drawdowns of the magnitude of those to which Blackrock 94 has been subjected will create “extreme” impacts. The predicted “extreme” impacts were 1) loss of groundwater-dependent grass cover 2) increase of precipitation- dependent shrub cover, 3) weed infestations, especially Russian thistle; and 4) increase of bare ground in the form of alkali barrens. These impacts can be collectively described as “desertification.”

Four independent sets of monitoring data now show the “extreme” impacts noted above are occurring at Blackrock 94. There is another equally serious impact occurring which DWP did not predict and neither DWP nor Inyo County even monitor: soil deflation (wind erosion of soil). This is occurring at a rapid rate and I have personally measured up to 2 cm of deflation in a 6 month period at Blackrock 94.

2) Blackrock… was mitigated for by providing a fish hatchery…” This is a double lie:

1) DWP did not “provide a fish hatchery.” The Blackrock fish rearing facility was established by the California Dept. of Fish and Game in 1941. In 1971 DWP dried up the Blackrock Springs, which had supplied the operation for 30 years. DWP then supplied pumped groundwater and claimed it mitigated the drying of Blackrock Springs.

2) The desertification of Blackrock 94 was not “mitigated” by the hatchery. The impacts discussed above did not begin until after the LTWA was signed in 1991. In the LTWA, DWP’s pumping to supply water for the Blackrock facility mitigated the 1971 drying of the spring — it didn’t mitigate impacts to vegetation at Blackrock 94 that had yet to (and were never supposed to) occur.

In asserting that the hatchery somehow “mitigated” Blackrock 94, Mr. Yannotta argued that the desertification at Blackrock 94 was justified because it was done in the name of a mitigation project. This makes a mockery of the concept of mitigation. The implication is that creating new environmental devastation is acceptable if done in the name of mitigating old environmental devastation.

This argument also makes a mockery of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Nothing in CEQA says impacts created by mitigation projects do not themselves have to be mitigated. Mr. Yannotta’s argument cries out for judicial review.


Mr. Yannotta stated in his letter that DWP was committed to all provision of the LTWA. His use of meaningless statements, misleading comparisons, and lies suggests otherwise. DWP is unilaterally imposing a self-serving, environmentally devastating reading of the LTWA and Inyo County has yet to offer effective resistance.

















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8 Responses to Letter to the editor: DWP view of Owens Valley debunked

  1. Steve June 17, 2013 at 7:19 am #

    It is time to stop all pumps that feed LA. They have all the water coming from the Sierra”s that is all they should get.

  2. MJA June 17, 2013 at 7:53 am #

    Dear Daniel,

    Thanks for your most informative letter, It raised some questions in me.
    What is the ground water level required to adequately sub-irrigate the native vegetation of the Owens Valley? And much like the surface water level agreement protecting Mono Lake, shouldn’t an adequate ground water table level be the soul requirement for a healthy Owens Valley water management plan? Is that what is missing in the current agreement today? And lastly: Isn’t it time for a new agreement, One that levels the water for the good of all, including the valley ourselves?
    Thanks again,


  3. Clyde A. June 17, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    How do we get rid of the DWP? They have had there time here in the valley and have done nothing but rape the land! They do not care about the Owens valley or the people who live here, They only care about sucking the valley dry.

    • Benett Kessler June 17, 2013 at 8:21 am #

      A good start would be for our citizens and officials to engage in a relationship with DWP in which we stand up with courage, intelligence and resolute will to protect our environment and our need for a small bit of growth to keep our communities viable.
      Benett Kessler

      • Buck Turgidson June 17, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

        Benett I wanted to share some disturbing news breaking this am. Apparently state dems are attempting to attach a budget rider at the last minute that would do serious damage to the CPRA.



        • Benett Kessler June 17, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

          Thanks for this. CPRA, for those who don’t know, is California Public Records Act. We will follow this
          legislation. Our governments need more transparency, not less.
          Benett Kessler

      • Mike Philip June 17, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

        That’s right, it’s up to us. Thank God for the Owens Valley Committee. They do so much, including putting on local presentations for us. The upcoming movie “Slake” (if we donate enough funds for them to make it), and the book Paya might be good ways of getting the message out. I wonder if it will come down to a choice between LA or the Owens Valley.

        • J-Frog June 18, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

          True that, Thankfully we do have the OVC!
          As Owens Valley residents we must unite on this issue, LADWP will continue to divide and conquer, beginning with THEIR misinterpretations!
          Our climates are definitely changing, LADWP’s influence has rapidly changed Eco systems, depleted life supporting systems and pretty much made us all sheep to the system since we can’t even utilize our land or resources to benefit our own backyard!
          Everything is interconnected, We need our riparian areas back!


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