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Water table dropping fast in West Bishop

January 10, 2014

The new landscape in West Bishop includes drilling rigs as the area’s older, shallow wells dry out or can no longer provide consistent water to homes. Photo by Deb Murphy

When Phil Anaya addressed the Inyo County Water Commission on Jan. 6 about the restoration of water levels in South Lake and Lake Sabrina through this summer, he had no idea the next speaker would add substance to his initiative.
Anaya has been on a crusade. The Bishop Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors voted to send a letter in support of Anaya’s initiative to Jim Yannotta, aqueduct manager at the Los Angeles Department of Water. Anaya is making the rounds of other agencies and organizations to encourage LADWP to balance the release of water in the two Bishop Creek drainage reservoirs.
Following Anaya’s comments, Highland Drive resident Jeff Kennedy asked the Water Commission if there wasn’t some sort of early warning system to alert residents that the water table had dropped. Kennedy’s well has just been completed and five of his neighbors on Highland Drive have had to drill new wells. Kennedy admitted his well was 50-60 years old and, at 31 feet, was shallow. “We had our pump replaced six to eight years ago and the water table was at 12 feet,” he said. “Now it’s at 24 feet. We want to know if there is other activity beyond the drought that’s causing this.”
The Kennedys expressed their concerns to Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington in early December. Data from monitoring sites led Harrington to tell the commissioners that holding water at Sabrina and South Lake to run the West Bishop ditch system longer may mitigate the situation.
Bill Boyd of Ralph Reeve Pump and Well was drilling on Highland Drive earlier this week and agreed that the dry ditches could have an impact on the water table. “Most of these old, shallow wells have been dying since they were put in,” he said. “We got a couple of calls in the early fall, that’s typical. But then we got more and more calls (to drill new wells in the area). That’s atypical.”
“There’s a lot of water down there,” Boyd said, just not at the shallow range of the older wells. The newer wells are going down to 100 feet and more to find a sustainable source.
When Kennedy went to the Water Department, Harrington initially suspected an LADWP well, W407, located within 1,000 feet of Highland Drive. The well supplies irrigation and stock water to LADWP leases and usually runs approximately 180 days a year, during summer and early fall. This year, W407 ran through early December, supplying stock water due to the low water levels in Bishop Creek.
The Water Department notified LADWP; the well was shut off Dec. 11. If W407 was the cause of the drop in the water table, there would be signs of recovery. There wasn’t. “The water table recovered a foot, at the most,” Harrington said. “The early cut-off to the (West Bishop) ditch system and the lack of recharge appears to be the answer. Historically the ditch system has helped maintain the high water table. This is clear evidence of what happens when you cut off the ditches.
“We don’t know what else is going on,” Harrington said. “There’s a patchwork of wells (in the area), some private, some community service districts, some on the reservation. My opinion is that this (drop in water table) is being driven by the lack of recharge.”
To substantiate his conclusion, Harrington provided data from one of the monitoring wells in the West Bishop area. The water table levels are historically high in the fall and low in the spring, the exact opposite of patterns throughout the rest of Owens Valley where runoff brings up groundwater levels in the spring. The last measurement was made Dec. 13; the water table was between 16 and 18 feet, six feet lower than at any time since the graphing began in 1970 and more than 10 feet lower than the previous measurement earlier last year. The graph shows drastic rises and drops in water levels, but nothing near the drop-off measured last month.
Commissioners and others in attendance at the meeting tried to recall, from memory, drought years prior to 1970 and the correlation with creek flow and ground water levels. According to Daris Moxley, Bishop Creek was dry in 1963 but wells didn’t go dry.
In the meantime, LADWP has not turned W407 back on, moving water around to fulfill its stock water requirements.
Rain and a big snowpack would help solve the problems, including Anaya’s efforts to see water in South Lake and Lake Sabrina and flows in the creeks and ditches in West Bishop. Both lakes are managed by Southern California Edison.
LADWP Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta cites the legal requirements to maintain a flow for the fisheries in the Bishop Creek drainage as well as comply with the 1922 Chandler Decree. The decree stipulates specific flows to supply water for irrigation and stock in the Bishop area.
“We’re experiencing two of the driest years on record,” Yannotta said. With the department’s flow requirements, “we have to make adjustments.” Ditches where water is not required were cut off to meet LADWP’s legal requirements.
In the past when summer water levels were low at the two lakes, SCE has requested and been granted by LADWP a variance to the Chandler Decree. LADWP has maintained that it is legally bound to the flows specified in the decree.

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