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First step taken to resolve Blackrock wellfield dispute

April 30, 2014

After seven years of wending their way through procedure, Inyo County and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power representatives have resolved the dispute over Blackrock 94.
The resolution, approved at Tuesday’s Standing Committee meeting in Independence, still has to get through both entities’ governing boards and a California Environmental Quality Analysis. Both processes will provide an opportunity for public comment.
According to the resolution, pumping at the site will be reduced from 12,200 acre-feet a year to 8,000 and LADWP will work toward restoring meadows on 665 acres with prescribed burns.
Marty Adams, LADWP’s assistant general manager for water, focused on the element of the resolution that “would set objectives for the future:” the inclusion of the Ecological Society of America to act as a third party to “develop and implement vegetation monitoring procedures” to determine if changes to vegetation in the valley “has occurred, is occurring or will occur.”
“This gets us past ‘doing our own thing,’” said Adams. “Past two ways of looking at the science.”
“This is a very comprehensive resolution,” said committee member and Inyo Supervisor Linda Arcularius, stressing the resolution’s first paragraph on “desire to foster a more cooperative and effective working relationship between the two entities.”
Following approval of the resolution, LADWP Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta was ready to “look forward” to this summer’s Owens River summit and development of an adaptive management plan for annual flows and changes at the pump back station.
Much of the prolonged process of the Blackrock dispute centered on LADWP’s argument that the methods the county used to assess damage to the vegetation were not in compliance with the Long Term Water Agreement. The Arbitration Panel set up to hear the issue knocked down LADWP’s arguments and sent the matter back to the county and the department.
The agreement to include ESA to develop monitoring procedures should eliminate future disputes on procedure.
The choice to reduce pumping to 8,000 acre-feet was anything but arbitrary. The number reflects the volume of water generated by natural springs at the site of the Blackrock Fish Hatchery until the early 1970s when LADWP began pumping. According to Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington, an agreement was reached between the Department of Fish and Wildlife and LADWP to supply 12,000 acre-feet from two wells on site. The springs dried up after LADWP began pumping.
As a result of a DFW Environmental Impact Report and an Owens Valley Committee law suit in 2010, the parties reached an agreement on that 8,000 acre-feet for the hatchery operation. The number, basically, reflects conditions prior to the onset of groundwater pumping at Blackrock 94.
Harrington still describes the resolution as an experiment. In theory, reduced pumping will increase the water table back to, or near, a level to support meadow grasses. As the table rises, prescribed burns will come into play to reduce the shrubby growth that replaced alkali meadows over the past 40 years.
Enhancement in the area is initially identified as “off-site,” but, according to Greg James, special counsel to Inyo County and one of the authors of the LTWA, “if the water table rises as the models say they will,” Blackrock 94 may be included in the 665-acre project.
The dispute resolution, made public just before the Tuesday morning meeting, was not necessarily embraced by those in attendance, many of whom had followed the issue of vegetation degradation on the 330-acre section between Big Pine and Independence since the early 1990s.
One paragraph that raised eyebrows was the fact LADWP “does not admit or agree that any significant adverse decreases or changes to vegetation were attributable to its groundwater pumping activities.” The only real empirical proof that the vegetation degradation was caused by pumping could show up in the coming years.

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