Skip to Content

A brief History of the Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement and MOU

In 1913 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) completed an aqueduct from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. In order to secure the water rights to fill the aqueduct, DWP eventually acquired title to over 200,000 acres of land in the Owens Valley. The tactics used to acquire land and water rights were the subject of bitter controversy at the time, and created a legacy of ill-will between some Owens Valley residents and DWP which persists to this day. This controversy has been the subject of numerous articles and books. The most comprehensive is William Kahrl’s Water and Power.

In June, 1970 DWP completed a second barrel of its aqueduct. Construction was completed before the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was passed in November 1970, thus the project was never subject to environmental review.

To fill the new aqueduct LADWP substantially increased groundwater pumping on its properties in the Owens Valley in 1972. Residents soon noticed springs and wetlands drying up. Inyo County sued, arguing that increased pumping to fill the new aqueduct was covered by CEQA. The Court of Appeals agreed, and required DWP to complete an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on its groundwater pumping to fill the new portion of the aqueduct.

The first EIR (1976) was challenged as inadequate by Inyo County and rejected by the court in 1977. The next EIR (1979) was also challenged by Inyo County and also rejected by the court in 1981.

In 1980, Inyo County voters passed the Groundwater Ordinance, an initiative to regulate groundwater pumping through a groundwater management plan and pumping permit procedure. Los Angeles challenged this ordinance and a trial court held it to be unconstitutional in 1983. Rather than appeal the Groundwater Ordinance decision to the California Supreme Court, Inyo County and LADWP entered into an interim five-year management agreement in 1984.

In 1989 Inyo and DWP reached a compromise agreement regarding management of DWP’s groundwater pumping. This compromise is known as the Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement. The agreement was very controversial at the time and recall campaigns were launched against three county supervisors who supported the agreement. The three supervisors won their recall elections and Inyo County approved the compromise agreement. The EIR for this agreement was completed in 1990. This EIR also covered the pumping to fill the second barrel of the Aqueduct.

Inyo County accepted the EIR as it pertained to the Water Agreement. Although environmental groups (including CNPS) viewed the Water Agreement itself as acceptable, they judged the EIR for this document to be deficient and challenged it in court. Instead of rejecting the EIR (and requiring that a new one be written for the fourth time) the Court invited the Sierra Club, Owens Valley Committee, Ca Dept. of Fish and Game to be "friends of the court" and offer suggestions to remedy deficiencies in the EIR. Seven years of negotiations between the friends of the court, DWP, and Inyo County resulted in the signing of an MOU. The MOU required DWP and Inyo County to perform several research and mitigation projects not called for in the Water Agreement and accompanying EIR, and provided more detail regarding the Lower Owens River Project, a mitigation project called for in the Water Agreement.

When the MOU was finally signed and accepted by the court in 1997, the Water Agreement (negotiated 7 years before) and MOU became legally binding.

CNPS was actively involved in the intense political discussions surrounding the Water Agreement. Led by Mary DeDecker, founder of the Bristlecone Chapter, the chapter actively supported the agreement and also supported the challenge to the EIR for the Agreement by the Owens Valley Committee.

Now that the Agreement and MOU are binding (as in a contract), CNPS’s concerns have shifted to implementation. The Agreement and MOU are in different places both very complicated and also very vague. Successful implementation will require good faith efforts on the part of both Inyo County and DWP. So far, results have not been encouraging.

Information above comes from The Inyo County Water Department's "Water Monitor", the newsletter of the Bristlecone Chapter of CNPS, and the books Deepest Valley by Jeff Putman and Genny Smith, and Water and Power by William Kahrl.