By Deb Murphy
The numbers tell the story. The listing of Owens Valley water uses indicates a reduction across the board, but none as draconian as the 66-percent reduction in irrigation water provided to area agriculture, down from 49,000 acre-feet in a typical year to 16,500 acre-feet this runoff year.
The numbers are included in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Owens Valley operations plan and will be the topic of conversation at Tuesday’s “Talking Water Workshop” at the Inyo County Board of Supervisors meeting, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Enhancement Mitigation projects are down from 10,000 acre-feet in a typical year to 9,500; recreation, from 9,000 to 7,400; the Owens Lake dust mitigation project is down from 75,000 to 60,700 and the Lower Owens River Project, down from 18,600 to 15,300 acre-feet. Both the Owens Lake and LORP quantities are slightly higher when compared to the 2014-15 runoff year.
“We can’t beat up on the city,” said Lone Pine cattleman Tom Noland. “It just doesn’t look like the water’s there.”
Ranchers dependent on surface water will be hit the hardest, county Water Department Director Bob Harrington told the Water Commissioners at their April 23 meeting. Besides praying for rain, area ranchers’ hope for survival may well depend on the Supervisors’ workshop as they have cut their herds to the quick.
As Scott Kemp put it, ranchers are trying to preserve the genetics of their cattle. Rebuilding a herd is a multi-year process; having a proven breeding program is the beginning.
Kemp and Noland agree on what has to be done. “Take water off the Owens Lake,” Noland told the Water Commissioners. “What do people here value? We can put up with a little dust.”
In an earlier phone conversation, Noland acknowledged that reducing the base flow on the LORP could free up irrigation water, provided the Memorandum of Understanding partners could agree to a one-year change.
Kemp is more blunt. “The EPA will sue if they (LADWP) don’t meet the standards (on the dry lake); everybody else will sue if they don’t meet their obligations on the Lower Owens…. The only people who come out on top are the attorneys…. There are a lot of good ideas, but getting everybody to agree….”
The reality for ranchers is grim. Herds have been cut by as much as 70 percent. Kemp’s were cut 40-percent prior to this year; now he’s looking at cutting that number in half. Mark Lacey’s operation had private lands near Bridgeport and Crowley Lake as safety valves, but now those grazing fields can’t support significant numbers.
“We’re down 60-percent from five years ago,” he said. In mid-May, he’s moving cows to Nebraska. “The Owens Valley’s been resilient,” he said, noting that six of the last seven years have seen drought conditions. “But you can’t expect the land to rebound quickly. The forage has been taxed.”
According to Lacey, 2014 beef prices were high enough to not reflect the drop in herd sizes, but that won’t be the case in 2015. “Last year, the market reached its height,” he said, “now exports are down…. We can only hope for the best and plan for the worst.”