A reliable water supply is essential to insure the future of a community in California. This is certainly what Los Angeles (LA) was thinking about 100-plus years ago when in 1905 it claimed the Owens River for its city. A question now to ask is: What are the Big Pine Paiute Tribe and the town of Big Pine doing to ensure there will be sufficient water 100 years from now for our local people? The Big Pine area currently is confronting two water-related issues that offer a chance to slow down LADWP’s excessive pumping of Big Pine.
One: Let’s reverse the Bad Deal in Big Pine
“I think something kind of bad happened here” – John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
The “Bad Deal At Big Pine” was made in 2003. Back then, Inyo County and LADWP were looking for water that could count as “replacement” water for water used by members of the new Big Pine Irrigation and Improvement Association (BPIIA). The BPIIA ditch system provides water to some town properties, and total usage averages about 500 acre-feet of water per year (af/yr). “Use” is measured by LADWP and is water supplied that does not flow out at a monitored location. In their search for replacement water, Inyo County and LADWP found that another Big Pine-area mitigation project, Klondike Lake, was not using all of the 2,200 af of water each year which had been allotted. Inyo and LADWP agreed in 2003 to reduce Klondike’s water allotment from 2,200 af/yr to 1,700 af/yr. Next, they agreed to “credit” 300 af/yr of the difference to BPIIA, counting this amount each year towards the replacement water.
Great solution, right? Oh, but Wait! The difference between 2,200 and 1,700 is 500, not 300! Who gets the extra 200 af/yr? Answer: LADWP! Furthermore, water deliveries to Klondike as recorded by LADWP show that, on average, Klondike uses only 1,500 af/yr. This means there is an additional 200 af/yr which was allotted to this project that LADWP keeps for itself.
Water deliveries to the BPIIA ditch system began in 2005. Since then, BPIIA has racked up a significant water debt. According to Inyo County and LADWP, at the beginning of 2019, BPIIA owed LADWP nearly 2,000 af! Inyo County and LADWP’s proposed solution to make up the deficit now and in the future is to pump ground water from new wells located west of the Big Pine Indian Reservation and town. One of these wells is already drilled, Well 415. Based on this logic, Well 415 would need to pump continuously for three years in order to come close to closing the gap in what the BPIIA owes. Hydrologic modeling by LADWP shows this pumping will cause the water table west of Big Pine to drop at least ten feet in three years.
But what if this problem is solved a different way? What if the county and LADWP agree to credit all 700 af/yr to BPIIA and the crediting begins when the Klondike project began in 1992? Viewing the situation in this way, BPIIA would have started in 2005 with 9,100 af of credit! Offsetting 500 af/yr of use with 700 af/yr of credit still puts BPIIA well “into the black” now and into the future.
Another, smaller source of water could also count as credit. LADWP wells supply the town with drinking water. As the well(s) pump, some of this water is released, more or less continuously, into Big Pine Creek and off to the LA Aqueduct. LADWP measures the amount, which is currently being exported without any “crediting.” It averages about 65 af/yr.
Unfortunately for our communities, when LADWP’s water-gathering causes an environmental impact in the valley, Inyo County and LADWP often agree it’s acceptable for the mitigation to include additional groundwater pumping by LADWP. The Tribe stated years ago that it objects to this approach. Nevertheless, the 2003 BPIIA-Klondike deal was a “paper” water trade approach to addressing the replacement water. Sadly, as shown here, the deal was lopsided in favor of LADWP and unfair for the community of Big Pine. Now that LADWP is coming to claim its make-up water by pumping from Well 415, Inyo County has the opportunity to propose a much better deal for the people and environment of Big Pine. The Tribe asks the agencies to protect Big Pine and do the right thing for our overpumped community.
Two: Rethink Pumping at Fish Springs Hatchery.
News broke in June that trout at two California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) fish hatcheries in Owens Valley, as well as the Mojave hatchery in Victorville, were infected with a disease-causing bacteria. Black Rock and Fish Springs hatcheries in Owens Valley raise catchable-sized trout which are planted in lakes and streams in Mono County.
Trout are not native to the Eastern Sierra, but shortly after Euro-American settlers arrived in Owens Valley, they were introduced into the clean, cold waters of the Owens River watershed. Anglers benefited, but the valley’s four native fish species were pushed to the brink of extinction. Over time, state-managed fish hatcheries were established, and two of them, Black Rock and Fish Springs, were situated to make use of what was then prolific natural spring water. Later, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) curiously got into the act. LADWP installed groundwater wells near the spring vents at both hatcheries. LADWP’s powerful pumps went on in 1970, and spring flows ceased as all the water and-then-some was sucked up by the pumps. The pumped water is released into the hatchery raceways, speeds past the fish, then discharges into the LA Aqueduct system.
CDFW announced in July the sick fish would be euthanized. The hatchery facilities need to be disinfected, and it could take months to more than a year before fish are large enough to be stocked for recreation. With no fish in the raceways for months to come, Why not turn off the pumps?
For more than a decade, the Big Pine Paiute Tribe has asked for better water management at the hatcheries, particularly Fish Springs. Wetland, meadow and riparian habitats in the vicinity of Fish Springs died off quickly with the onset of LADWP pumping. The excessive pumping since 1970 affects depth to ground water under the Reservation and throughout most of the Big Pine area. Deeper ground water means it costs the Tribe more in electricity to provide domestic drinking water to the Tribal community. The Tribe thought that, as the result of a legal settlement in 2010 and subsequent state and CDFW-related policies, by now methods would be devised and implemented which would recycle the pumped ground water, reusing it for fish instead of exporting all of it to LA. In the Tribe’s view, promises have been made that have not been kept.
Currently CDFW, Inyo County, and LADWP find themselves in a fishless condition at the hatcheries. Why not take this opportunity to turn off the big pumps, at least for now? We may learn answers to important questions. Will the springs begin flowing again? Would water tables throughout the Big Pine area begin to rise up? Could a new era of fish production be accomplished using natural spring water instead of pumped water? Is putting all the eggs in one basket (one mega fish hatchery) the most sustainable way to raise healthy fish? If no fish are being produced, it is time to turn down the pumping and make good on some of those commitments to use water more wisely in Owens Valley.
Sally arrived in Owens Valley in 1984 as a UC Davis graduate student. Her research was on ecology and water relations of Owens Valley plants, and she finished her Ph.D. while employed as the Vegetation Scientist at Inyo County Water Department. After retiring from Inyo County at the end of 2008, Sally went to work for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley in 2009 where she serves as Environmental Director.