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Drought Recovery Policy


The Inyo-LA Standing Committee adopted a one-paragraph Drought Recovery Policy (DRP) and included it in the Draft EIR to the Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) in 1990.  In response to a comment that the DRP needed to be strengthened to cause recovery of soil moisture to the estimated needs of the vegetation at the time it was inventoried between 1984 and 1987, the Standing Committee added a second paragraph to the DRP in the Final EIR of 1991.  The Standing Committee's action was taken due to fears that the experimental nature On/Off  management  protocol of the LTWA  would not be adequate to recover water tables and vegetation from impacts of the catastrophic over-pumping in the drought years of 1987-1989 (City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Inyo County 1991).

Pumping from 1991 through 2000 was managed in accordance with the DRP and in some areas water tables did recover to the rooting zone of groundwater-dependent vegetation and total perennial cover recovered to baseline conditions in those areas as well (Manning 2002)

In November 2001, LADWP released a study by its consultant Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH) (Montgomery Watson Harza 2001). The study concluded that the DRP should be terminated.  The findings of the report were summarized in oral presentations to the Inyo County Water Commission, and Inyo County Board of Supervisors, and in a glossy brochure sent to Owens Valley residents.

Inyo County, however, did not concur with the findings of this report.  Inyo County Water Department (ICWD) along with such groups as the Bristlecone chapter of the California Native Plant Society and the League of Women Voters all commented on obvious self-serving deficiencies of the report.   Notwithstanding the fact that LADWP had already  publicized the report widely, as of February 2002 its personnel were still carefully evaluating the report... but had yet to make any opinion on the validity of the work done by MWH or the conclusions of the DRP evaluation report ... (Coufal 2002).

Rather than address the numerous comments made to the MWH report, LADWP ignored them and in April 2002 released its 2002 annual operations plan (i.e. pumping plan) which was not in compliance with the DRP.  Inyo County did not challenge the pumping plan, and in August 2002 it was revealed that Inyo County and LADWP had agreed to “table” their dispute over LADWP's unilateral termination of the DRP (Erb 2002).  Not surprisingly, water tables were predicted to decline in all wellfields (Inyo-Los Angeles Technical Group 2002) and recovery of no more vegetation parcels has been documented since that time. 

In April 2003, LADWP released its 2003 annual operations plan, which called for an increase in pumping over the 2002 levels, which, by lowering water tables under parcels which had yet to recover, violated the DRP.  This time Inyo County did not agree to the pumping plan.  Rather than challenge it through the LTWA's Dispute Resolution process, Inyo County and Los Angeles representatives agreed at the Standing Committee of June 6, 2003, to initiate a series of meetings with a facilitator to follow a consensus-building process in an attempt to develop a replacement for the DRP.  The meetings were closed to the public and participants prohibited from discussing them.  The meetings were to be concluded by September 1, 2003, at which time Inyo County threatened to initiate proceedings under the Dispute Resolution process if a satisfactory replacement for the DRP had not been developed.

As of February 2004, no replacement has been developed and the meetings continue.  It was disclosed that the initial attempt at consensus among scientists and technical experts had failed but that the participants had found the process valuable. 

The Arguments:

There are at least two grounds for objecting to LADWP's termination of the DRP: 1) procedural and 2) substantive. 

The procedural argument is that LADWP has no right to unilaterally end a policy which was established by the Standing Committee.  If the Standing Committee enacts a policy, only the Standing Committee should have the authority to modify or terminate the policy.  If either LADWP or Inyo County is allowed to unilaterally terminate policies of the Standing Committee, what is the point of having a Standing Committee at all?

The substantive argument is that the DRP should not be terminated because its goals have not been met.  While some parcels have recovered, others clearly have not.  Data submitted to the Technical Group by ICWD identify parcels throughout the valley where water tables and vegetation have never recovered to baseline levels.   MWH's report (which justifies LADWP’s termination of the DRP) is fatally flawed for numerous reasons, of which the most obvious are the fact that the definition of water table recovery (i.e. recovery of 80% of the maximum drawdown) used by MWH ignores recovery of vegetation and so is inconsistent with the explicit goals of the DRP; and 2) the treatment of entire wellfields as units of analysis (instead of individual vegetation parcels) is inconsistent with the vegetation management protocols specified in the Green Book.

Significance of the issue:

While restoration of water tables to the rooting zone of groundwater-dependent vegetation is implicit in the requirements of the LTWA to manage groundwater pumping to “avoid impacts,” the DRP is important because it is the only policy in which the goal of recovery to the “rooting zone” of vegetation is stated explicitly.  The effectiveness of the DRP is evident in the documented recovery of both water tables and vegetation in selected areas of Owens Valley during the period when the DRP was observed (Manning 2002).  At the Standing Committee meeting of June 2003, both Inyo and LA agreed that the On/Off management protocol has major flaws and without the DRP, management reverts to the On/Off protocol. 

The significance of this issue also lies in the fact that it exemplifies the lengths LADWP will go to distort the clear meaning of agreements in order to justify its excessive pumping.  LADWP's DRP interpretation is based on taking the phrase substantial recovery in soil moisture and water table conditions (found in the second paragraph of the DRP) and ignoring the first paragraph entirely by giving “substantial recovery” an arbitrary definition of 80% of the maximum drawdown while paying no attention to recovery of vegetation at all.  What makes this particularly flagrant is that the second paragraph of the DRP, upon which LADWP's entire interpretation is based, was written in response to a comment which called for strengthening the first paragraph, which requires recovery of water table to the rooting zone of vegetation to meet the vegetation protection requirements of the LTWA (City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and County of Inyo 1991).

Literature cited