Caltrans: LADWP Environmental Commitment of Mono County

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Frequently Asked Questions
CA’S WATER SUPPLY CONDITIONS DRIVING STATEWIDE CHANGE

How are current climate realities affecting how we assess water management practices?
California is facing a new climate reality marked with increasing cycles of drought and a resulting shift in water supply availability. In light of this paradigm shift, it is incumbent upon all water  managers and users – especially public agencies and agricultural interests – to adapt their policies to the state’s changing climate and resource availability. LADWP is re-evaluating how our precious and limited water resources are managed, ensuring every drop is put to its highest and best use.

Has there been a shift in Los Angeles’ water supply?
Yes. Just like every other part of the state, Los Angeles is heavily impacted by the increasing water scarcity as a result of climate change. For example, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which flows  from the Eastern Sierras, has provided one of the city’s primary sources of water for decades. In recent years, the Eastern Sierra watershed was hit with dramatic weather extremes, a consecutive five-year historic drought followed by one of the wettest years on record – this water supply is volatile and changing each year. To top off the challenge, Los Angeles currently leaves more than half of the city’s historic LA Aqueduct water supply in Mono and Inyo counties for environmental preservation. Climate extremes – and the resulting lack of water – necessitate LADWP’s careful eye on existing practices and require the department to make some tough but thoughtful decisions that will involve transformations in past operations – such as the proposed changes being initiated in Mono County along the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

A DEDICATED STEWARD OF MONO COUNTY’S ENVIRONMENT

Why did a handful of commercial ranchers in Mono County recently initiate a letter-writing campaign about LADWP’s water management practices?
Commercial ranchers in Mono County want guaranteed free water to sustain their artificial irrigation of otherwise natural habitat, and they want Los Angeles residents to pay for it – a request that LADWP cannot fulfill.

Have the commercial ranchers historically received free water from LADWP?
Yes.  Decades ago, LADWP offered surplus water without cost to the commercial ranchers in Mono County when the department had more water than it could accommodate in the LA Aqueduct. The practice continued in an ad-hoc manner at LADWP’s discretion when surplus supplies were available, resulting in flood irrigation and the emergence of opportunistic and seasonal ranching operations.

Could diverting less water for artificial irrigation impact the environment in Mono County?
Commercial ranchers in Mono County are asking LADWP to divert more water away from natural streams and riparian habitats to send to pastures for grazing – this request is inconsistent with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s approach to environmental protection and preservation. Diverting less water for artificial irrigation to benefit the commercial ranchers could help restore natural flow patterns in the creeks and streams located within Long Valley, which could substantially benefit the fisheries and riparian habitat found along the waterways, not unlike the benefits seen in the Mono Basin.

Will an Environmental Impact Report be completed before LADWP adjusts water management practices?
Yes. LADWP will complete a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before the department discontinues providing free water supplies to commercial ranch interests in Mono County, and returns water to the natural stream systems. While completing the EIR, LADWP will seek stakeholder input, and any potential environmental impacts will be carefully evaluated. The robust, science-based review process will help ensure that LADWP’s future water management practices will continue to defend and protect the local environment.

Will LADWP continue to provide water for the environment and wildlife in Mono County?
Yes. LADWP will continue to provide water to Mono County and will continue to provide water to meet the county’s environmental needs. The free water LADWP has provided to commercial ranchers is separate and unrelated to the water LADWP provides to serve the region’s environment – in fact, diverting less water for commercial ranching may have additional environmental benefits for Mono County.

Will LADWP provide water to support the native Bi-State Sage Grouse and their habitat?
Yes, LADWP is currently diverting water to protect the Sage Grouse and their habitat and will continue to ensure dedicated water is available as determined to be needed by the environmental review. LADWP has also taken action to protect the species through its Sage Grouse Conservation Strategy with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and its Habitat Conservation Plan.

Furthering its commitment to protecting the species, the department recently partnered with local environmental organizations to establish a Sage Grouse working group. Through this dedicated working group, LADWP is collaborating with Audubon California, Eastern Sierra Audubon, Mono County officials, Eastern Sierra Land Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and California Fish and Wildlife to ensure long-term protection of the Sage Grouse habitat.

Has LADWP been a good steward of the environment in the Eastern Sierra region?
Yes. LADWP is committed to environmental stewardship in all regions where it operates, owns and maintains land, including in Mono and Inyo counties. One example is LADWP’s investment in ecosystem restoration in the Eastern Sierras – one of the largest projects of its kind in the country, including:

  • More than $2 billion spent on dust mitigation at Owens Lake, including the establishment of a bird and waterfowl area recognized as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site of international importance.
  • Nearly $260 million spent on environmental mitigation projects, including many that are dedicated to public recreation (Diaz Lake, Lower Owens River, etc.).
  • Creek Restoration in Mono Basin following 30 years of intensive rehabilitation and scientific examination.
  • Completing the largest river revitalization project of its kind in the nation by rewatering the 62-mile Lower Owens River.

EVOLVING LADWP’S EXPIRED RANCH LEASES

What is the history of the relationship between LADWP and commercial ranchers in Mono County?
LADWP owns approximately 62,000 acres of land within Mono County, the vast majority of which are open to the public for recreational enjoyment. Commercial ranch interests, including a large-scale ranching business based outside Mono County, lease approximately 28,000 acres from LADWP for livestock grazing. Historically, seven of the commercial ranching interests received free water from LADWP to artificially flood irrigate cattle grazing lands and for stock watering. That water was never guaranteed as a component of the leases but only provided if surpluses were available at LADWP’s discretion.

Since 1989 ranchers have received, on average, ~22,700 acre-feet/year varying with run off numbers. It is important to note, much has changed during this 29-year timeframe – changes that cannot be accurately represented by a long-term average. In response to dramatic shifts in water supply availability and crippling drought, state and local environmental regulations have led to a dramatic reduction in LADWP’s water supply, which has led to a gradual decline in the amount of free water provided to ranchers over time.

What is the current status of the leases in Mono County?
Since those leases ended in December 2013, the commercial ranchers have continued their operations on an expired, holdover status.

Can the commercial ranchers continue operations on LADWP’s land in Mono County?
LADWP management has recommended offering to renew the ranching leases for another 20 years in five-year intervals – providing them a first right of refusal offer versus taking the leases to a competitive bid or exploring alternate uses for the land. The new lease provisions must be approved by the Board of Water and Power Commissioners and the Los Angeles City Council.

Will the commercial ranchers continue to receive free water as part of the renewed lease agreements?
No. When initiating discussions with the commercial ranchers about renewing their leases in the fall of 2017, LADWP notified the commercial ranchers that those leases will not include free water as requested by the ranchers. Free water has never been a guarantee tied to the ranching leases, rather it has been made available when LADWP has needed to offload surplus supplies to effectively manage water operations.

Why will LADWP no longer offer surplus water to commercial ranchers in Mono County?
Simply put, there is no surplus. LADWP is not an agricultural water supplier.

The state’s receding snowpack, prolonged dry periods and declining annual rainfall will continue to make it increasingly difficult to capture and store supplies needed to serve the state’s diverse water interests and environmental needs. In response, California policymakers, courts and regulators demand that some of the water that was used in the 20th century to build lush green cities in semi-arid regions and to artificially grow grass for livestock must be used in the 21st century for environmental purposes.

To comply with new environmental concerns and regulations, Los Angeles currently leaves more than half of its historic LA Aqueduct water supply in Mono and Inyo counties for environmental preservation. The free water that commercial ranchers once received is being used to control dust on Owens Lake, maintain water levels in Mono Lake and meet other environmental obligations, all while Los Angeles residents continue to heed calls to conserve.

To comply with conservation mandates, Los Angeles residents and businesses are paying more, using low-flush toilets and replacing their lawns with native vegetation. While Angelenos continue to do more to use less, commercial ranchers continue to demand more – following a dry winter, the commercial ranchers are asking LADWP to provide 110% of historic annual free water deliveries.

Faced with diminishing water supply availability and an uncertain water future, Los Angeles no longer has surplus supplies, making it impossible for LADWP to guarantee free artificial irrigation water for a handful of commercial ranch interests on a go forward basis.

Does this land need to be artificially irrigated for livestock to be able to successfully graze?
No. Natural precipitation, creek flows and subsurface water can support some level of grazing on the Mono County lease lands. In fact, the vast majority of the land leased by these commercial ranchers is naturally irrigated – versus artificially irrigated pastures.

Will LADWP provide water for the current ranching season?
Yes, understanding the concerns of the lessees and to ease this transition, LADWP notified the lessees shortly after this year’s runoff was calculated (email of 5/1/18) that they would receive 4,200 acre-feet (or .7 acre-feet per acre) this irrigation year (May - October) – approximately the same amount of water that was provided in 2016, following similar runoff conditions experienced that year. During the height of the drought in 2015, LADWP provided no water at all.

When were the commercial ranchers notified about the amount of free water LADWP will provide this season?
In the fall of 2017, LADWP restarted discussions with the ranchers about renewing their leases and provided draft lease agreements to them on March 1, 2018, which stated that LADWP would no longer be able to provide free water, for artificial irrigation,  on a go-forward basis.

LADWP notifies the commercial ranchers about the amount of free water they will receive each year shortly after the year’s annual runoff is calculated – the same process was followed this year to ease the transition. The commercial ranchers were notified of the amount of water they would receive this season on May 1, 2018, following the year’s final snow survey in April.

What if the commercial ranchers no longer want to lease LADWP’s land if they are not receiving free water?
While LADWP management has recommended offering to renew the ranching leases, the commercial ranchers can refuse the offer and/or explore their available alternative opportunities, including:

  1. Buying water from other sources;
  2. Leasing additional dry grazing lands or those that are naturally irrigated versus artificially irrigated;
  3. Supplementing feed supplies locally; or
  4. Scaling ranching operations to meet resource availability.

Achieving greater, long-term water supply sustainability will require all interests from all regions to adjust historic operations, and ranchers will need to do their part as well.

PROTECTING LA CITY RESIDENTS AND BUSINESSES

What is LADWP’s primary mission?
LADWP’s primary mission is to deliver safe, reliable and cost-effective water to four million Los Angeles city residents and businesses. LADWP is reevaluating all management practices to reflect our new climate reality – a process that has made it clear that we simply can't subsidize free water to commercial agri-businesses over the interests of local Los Angeles residents just because surpluses were available and offered in prior years. It’s a new day.

Who would pay for the free water being requested by the Mono County commercial ranchers?
Los Angeles residents and businesses pay for the water going to the Mono County commercial ranchers. While the price of water continues to go up throughout California and LA ratepayers continue to conserve, the commercial ranchers in Mono County want to continue to receive free water, and they want Los Angeles residents to pay for it.

Could that water be used to support Los Angeles families or the environment?
To replace the free water provided to a handful of for-profit ranchers, LADWP would be forced to buy more costly, and less reliable, replacement water from the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (via the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California). The amount of guaranteed free water requested by the commercial ranchers is enough to serve 50,000 families annually. LADWP would have to spend ~$18 million to replace the amount of water requested and the lost hydropower it generates – a cost burden of ~$30/family per year.

Ultimately, LADWP assesses all its water management practices through the lens of Los Angeles ratepayers – carefully balancing decisions in the best interests of working families and local businesses – and LADWP ratepayers cannot provide free water to commercial ranchers in Mono County in today’s water supply landscape.