Mono defies DWP; lawsuit could follow

Wendilyn Grasseschi
Times Reporter

Driving past Crowley Lake these days, brown meadows bear witness to the latest fight over water in the Eastern Sierra.

What was feared by local ranchers, residents and land managers has, indeed, come to pass; the once-green and lush meadows are drying up, fast.

Ranchers can see and feel it, residents see it with their own eyes, land managers are worried that the declining populations of sage grouse and other wildlife will decline even further.

Just don’t expect the ones who pulled the plug on the water to acknowledge that doing so has had any negative impacts.

“First and foremost, this is NOT a proposal to dewater or de-ranch Mono County,” said the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power on July 7 in a news release, after cutting irrigation water exports this summer from an average of 26,000-acre feet for the area to about 5,000-acre feet, resulting in the brown meadows so obvious to viewers.

“Before making any changes to water management practices in Mono County, LADWP will complete a full and thorough Environmental Impact Report,” DWP continued in its news release.

The obvious contradiction between the agency’s words and its actions – the water has been cut off since early summer, the meadows are brown, there has been no environmental review as of now – was a bit too much for most of the standing-room-only crown that attended a Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting July 7.

More than a bit too much.

Mary Roper, the current president of the Owens Valley Committee, was one of the dozens of concerned residents and others who spoke during the three-hour meeting Tuesday, as the board discussed the next step in the ongoing saga that started in March when DWP told the ranchers for the Long Valley and Little Round Valley area they were going to cut their irrigation water exports to 2016 drought levels this summer.

“Dewatering will result in the collapse of the ecosystems,” she said at one point. “We have learned that once damage is done (by DWP), mitigation is often not done. Before the meadows die, consider filing an injunction to stop the dewatering because it might be too late... By all means, try to continue to collaborate but have your lawsuit in your back pocket.”

Rancher Mark Lacey of Lacey Livestock, on of the leasees for the Long Valley meadows area, said he and his family have survived 150 years of changes to the Eastern Sierra but this could be the final straw as a rancher in Mono County. He also noted he has been very involved in trying to find a solution with DWP to the current water cut issue, but he fears his efforts are not changing things.

“My family celebrated out 150th year in Bishop last year,” he said. “We have adapted but this one might be one we cannot adapt to. It’s not because we do not want to, its simply that we will not be able to... DWP has an impossible mission. The more water they get, the more people will come. There is saying in the Owens Valley: ‘DWP does everything else. Then they do the right thing.’”

“My family came her almost 60 years ago from Germany,” said resident Dieter Feiberger. “Pretty soon, I found the High Sierra up here, from Los Angeles. I saw ranchers get rid of all the sagebrush, they cleared them, they had beautiful green fields. Then, the system came up to Bishop, pretty soon, the DWP started taking groundwater and allowing trees to die. Now, the beautiful meadow near Crowley Lake is brown this year. I don’t want to see what occurred in Bishop start to occur here. I don’t understand this. So, Los Angeles, you better fix your water system. You say it’s your water. That’s God’s water.”

Toward the end of the meeting, the Mono County Board of Supervisors weighed in.

Supervisor Jennifer Halferty said, “Climate change is real, mitigation is not the answer. Adaptation is, we have to change how we think of this.”

Supervisor John Peters expressed skepticism that DWP could continue to try to frame the issue as one of “ratepayer justice,” something the agency has been claiming, and he called DWP out for claiming in other meetings and news releases that the Eastern Sierra is being treated as a “local.”

“They are now calling us local,” he said. “If we are local, how are they treating their parks? They come up here, we welcome them, they have an expectation and it is not for brown meadows...”

The rest of the board expressed similar frustration and resolve, and in the end, voted unanimously to begin a much more aggressive strategy toward the problem, including a clear reference to filing a lawsuit to stop the damage and prevent further damage.

The final actions in the motion to vote included but were not limited to: “continue outreach to elected officials, agencies and others... ;continue participation with interested parties including environmental organizations, recreational groups, wildlife agencies, state and federal representatives, ranchers and others... ;pursue state and/or federal legislation restraining LADWP's actions... ;pursue the development of a long-term water management plan for Long Valley and Little Round Valley... ;and/or: file litigation against LADWP to restrain LADWP's actions this year and prevent further harm.”