LADWP sues another Eastern Sierra agency

By Mike Gervais

Inyo Register staff writer

Special to the Times

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power officials filed a federal lawsuit Oct. 12 to force the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District to halt what the department is calling Great Basin’s “systematic and unlawful issuance of water-wasting orders to L.A.’s customers,” related to dust mitigation on Owens Lake.

The LADWP is claiming that it has met its obligations on the dry lake, and will not be spending more city money or water for new mitigation measures. Currently, the department said it is using approximately 50 percent of the water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct for dust mitigation, and purchasing water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to make up the difference.

The LADWP did say it would continue its current dust mitigation projects.

Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control Officer Ted Schade said the LADWP has reduced dust blowing off the dry lake by 90 percent, but is required by law to reduce at least 99 percent of the dust. The LADWP said the most recent orders would require LADWP to spend another $400 million for mitigation that it says it did not cause.  

“These orders, according to the lawsuit, are in violation of the California State Constitution and federal and state laws and will, unless they are halted, result in the continued waste of billions of gallons of scarce California drinking water,” a press release from the LADWP stated.

“Los Angeles water consumers have devoted more than $1.2 billion over the last decade to control Owens Lake dust,” said LADWP General Manager Ron Nichols. “And we have achieved exactly what we agreed to do and were required to do by Great Basin. As we wrap up our obligations, the local regulator moves the goal posts, making up his own interpretation of the law without accountability to even his own board. Great Basin seeks to force L.A. to spend hundreds of millions more to reduce dust that the City did not create—all while requiring L.A. to fund 90 percent of his entire agency’s operating costs—including staff salaries, pension system and paying his outside lawyers at the rate of $750 an hour. Enough is enough.”

“This was a complete surprise to us,” said Schade. “I thought we were going into mediation, a discussion, but it seems they have decided to declare war here.”  

“The LADWP brought this lawsuit only as an absolute last resort,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “We have no intent to walk away from our fundamental obligations at Owens Lake. In fact, over recent months, we have been working productively with federal and state officials on a process that would have both protected the environment while saving enormous amounts of water and safeguarding the pocketbooks of Los Angeles ratepayers. Unfortunately, just one agency stood in the way of progress by continuing to issue unreasonable orders on the people of Los Angeles. As a result, we had no choice but to go to court.”

Meanwhile, another Eastern Sierra agency, the Mammoth Community Water District, which was sued by LADWP over water rights to Mammoth Creek last year and was in settlement talks with LADWP last week hoping to avoid going to court, is watching the case closely.

Although the two lawsuits are over very different issues, the fact that there have been two such high-profile lawsuits filed against Eastern Sierra resource managers within the past year could signal a new direction for an already contentious relationship between the big city water company and local agencies, officials say.

Add the fact that the water used to mitigate dust on the dry lake is that much less water in the system for LADWP customers could also be a motive for the agency to try to “sew up” as many water rights as possible—including those to Mammoth Creek.

With reporting by Wendilyn Grasseschi, Mammoth Times