Update on the Status of LADWP Leases with Commercial Ranch Operators in Mono County, CA
May 30, 2018
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) owns over 315,000 acres of land in Inyo and Mono Counties. Much of this land is open to the public for recreational use and portions of it are leased to commercial ranching operations for cattle grazing. Recently, concerns have been raised about the renewal of ranching leases in southern Mono County.
Contrary to popular belief, LADWP’s 10 ranch leases in Mono County have never included a guaranteed quantity of water for irrigation. Both the old and newly proposed leases specifically state that LADWP will provide water for irrigation at its sole discretion, based on LADWP operating needs as the single consideration. "Operating needs" include things such as LA Aqueduct operations and shutdowns, flow limitations (such as managing last years' extremely high runoff to avoid flooding in the Owens Valley and overtopping Lake Crowley), and meeting habitat and fishery flow requirements.
Historically, the amount of Eastern Sierra runoff that was available to Los Angeles often exceeded the capacity of the aqueduct system to move that water. When this occurred in the southern Mono area, water was spread onto approximately 6,000 acres of ranch leases in Long Valley. Such was the case during last year's record precipitation, when as much water was spread as the land could handle. However, it should also be no surprise that during the prior drought years, there was little to no additional water anywhere in the Mono Basin or Owens Valley watersheds. Simply put, the facts on the ground have changed from what we knew even a decade ago. There is a trend of less overall water in the eastern sierra – whether you call it prolonged drought or climate change, the water is not reliably there. Plus, about half of LA’s historic water supply is now left in Mono and Inyo Counties for environmental remediation and other commitments, which come first as long as they do not violate fish flows and other regulatory requirements. As a result, in most years there is no excess water.
Since 1989, LADWP has given Mono County ranchers an average 7 billion gallons of water a year for irrigation, enough water to serve more than 65,000 homes. Ranchers in Mono have benefited from extremely favorable lease terms and virtually free water. In the meantime, residents and businesses in Los Angeles continue to conserve water each year while facing increasing water bills that are driven in part by the need to purchase more water from the California Delta. In times where there is clearly no excess water and no operational need, LADWP cannot continue to provide free irrigation water to commercial ranching companies. No lease in Mono County has ever implied that LADWP would do so.
It is also important to clarify that that these issues have been worked on for many months with the ranching community, and the new proposed twenty-year lease terms were the result of much discussion, and not the start of it. And there has never been any plan to eliminate stock water, or drinking water, that livestock need to survive. Changes in the Eastern Sierra are difficult, including for Los Angeles, which has relied heavily on the region for more than 100 years. Our pledge is to continue an open dialogue with our partners in Mono County as we go through an environmental evaluation on reducing the water footprint of Long Valley ranching operations while also trying to provide some predictability for our ranch lessees. And above all, we remain committed to protecting the local environment and watershed as we deal with the challenges of the future.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What is the status of work to restore higher seasonal flows to the Owens River Gorge?
LADWP has made good progress toward re-establishing higher seasonal flows in the gorge. Millions of dollars have already been spent in modifying and preparing LADWP facilities to be able to deliver the desired flows and the work on those facilities is expected to be completed in 2019.
Will limiting water available for cattle grazing on land leased by ranchers affect the Owens Pupfish, Owens Tui Chub, Bell’s Vireo, Yellow-Billed Cuckoo or Willow Fly-catcher?
No. These species are not present in the areas where LADWP leases land in Long Valley for ranching
Will reductions in water available for cattle grazing negatively impact the Sage Grouse’s survival in Long Valley?
Cattle grazing and raven predation, not the reduction in water diversions for irrigation, have been identified as the two of the most imminent threats to the Sage Grouse’s survival in Long Valley. That said, water that is needed to support the Sage Grouse and its habitat is always provided.
Will reductions in the amount of water available for grazing harm the environment?
We don’t believe that reductions in water available to grow grazing grass will harm the environment. On the contrary, returning the land to its natural state likely would have many benefits similar to the dramatic environmental benefits seen on the Mono Basin. Restoring the natural hydrography to the streams and creeks in Long Valley, which have been degraded by years of water diversions, could substantially benefit the fisheries and riparian habitat found along those waterways. Further, cessation of irrigation could eliminate nutrient laden return water that will improve water quality in both the streams and Crowley reservoir, resulting in reduction in late season algae blooms that affect water quality and fishing. In order to ensure any environmental impacts, if any, are identified, LADWP is conducting the environmental evaluation prior to finalizing the proposed leases.