Skip to main content

Ranchers caught between a rock and a hard place

June 11, 2014

Owens Valley cattleman Mark Lacey outlined the nearly 100-year relationship between ranchers and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power as well as current leases, at the Metabolic Studio’s IOU Garden in Lone Pine Monday evening. Photo by Deb Murphy

A chapter in the Owens Valley water story became crystal clear during cattleman Mark Lacey’s presentation at the Metabolic Studio’s IOU Garden in Lone Pine Monday evening.
The 1991 Long Term Water Agreement between Inyo County and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power appeared to provide a steady flow of irrigation and stock water for the valley’s ranchers. Those ranchers are now caught between a long history of consistency in both LADWP lease agreements and water supply and the added pressure of water diversions for restoration of Mono and Owens lakes and consecutive drought years.
The informal talk was part of the studio’s “100 Conversations About Water” that began last year as part of the anniversary commemoration of the completion of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Aqueduct.
“LADWP has been a good landlord,” Lacey said, “with little changes in the leases over the last 50 years.” The LTWA on groundwater pumping was signed in 1991, the Mono Lake restoration began in the late 1980s (with no surface water exports through 1994, then exports based on the depth of the lake to the present) and the Memorandum of Understanding that established mitigation projects in the valley was signed in 1997. The latter two had an impact on the volume of Eastern Sierra water available for Los Angeles and now with three successive years of drought could have an impact on the ranchers’ leases.
“The lessees were the only ones in the valley required to fulfill the stipulations of the Water Agreement and the MOU,” Lacey said. “And we still have no representation, except through the county Water Department.
“LADWP advised the lessees that things would stay the same,” he said. “And the LTWA said pretty much the same thing.” What the department didn’t foresee was the impact of the Mono Lake restoration and the Lower Owens River Project would have on surface water and the depth of groundwater.
The primary issue with the current lease negotiations is focused on stock water supplied to lessees once the irrigation water supplies are cut off in late September. “DWP sees it (stock water) as waste,” Lacey said.
The new leases fold stock water into irrigation water allotments with the implication that charges will be levied for stock water use “above the reasonable amount,” with LADWP making the determination of what is reasonable.
Lacey pointed out stock water has to be available at multiple sources on grazing land in order to eliminate overuse at a sole water source. While stock water flows are minor compared to irrigation water flows, “flow” is the key component. The water has to be able to get to the cows.
The reduction or elimination of stock water would mean “a few thousand less acre feet in the valley,” Lacey said.
One solution would be wells drilled specifically for stock water. In the Lacey family operation, that is being done with windmills and solar wells.
The ranchers approached the Inyo County Water Department in late winter. Department Director Bob Harrington looked at the lease changes in terms of compliance with the LTWA and found discrepancies, both in the stock water issue and other wording, specifically “water availability during periods of below normal runoff will be subject to the sole discretion of the Lessor.) The LTWA allows for reductions in water allotments, but through agreement from the Technical Group and Standing Committee. “This is a delicate triangulation,” Harrington said in a phone interview, referring to aspects of the leases that reflect on the LTWA.
Harrington pointed out the discrepancies in a letter to Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta on March 20 and has received no response.
The ranchers and LADWP began lease negotiations this past spring, but according to one of the negotiators, “there’ve been no meetings in a while.” The county has no involvement in those negotiations but could be involved in the resolution of issues related to the LTWA.
“We’ve (the lessees) done what we can do,” Lacey said. “This is a typical rental agreement with the advantage to the lessor.”

Premium Drupal Themes by Adaptivethemes