July has left many watching the Mono County and Sierra Club litigation confused and upset, with headlines claiming a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) victory. The First District Court of Appeal for the State of California announced on June 30th its decision to overturn a March 2021 ruling in favor of Mono County and the Sierra Club regarding LADWP irrigation on their ranch leases in Long Valley.
When Mono County and the Sierra Club first filed litigation under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in 2018, it was in effort to prevent LADWP from moving forward with its latest plan to increase water extraction from the lands of the Eastern Sierra. Predictably, this plan would (and still can) cause tremendous damage to Long Valley’s valuable environmental resources. That initial March 2021 win was an exciting step toward recognition by the courts that DWP cannot continue to delay solving its freshwater supply issues by devastating our lands.
While any headline announcing an LADWP “win” is discouraging, the truth is more nuanced. In the previous decision, the court ruled that LADWP could not dewater Long Valley without an EIR. In their appeal, LADWP argued that they would not be offering waterless leases at all. Based on that assertion, the court decided that DWP did not need to do an EIR. That is, the court reversed the previous ruling under the assumption of trusting LADWP’s word: if LADWP is not going to dewater, then they do not need to do an EIR.
So, the previous ruling gave us the ammunition to say “you can’t do that without doing this,” and this ruling gives us the opportunity to say “you can’t do that, because you said you wouldn’t.” If LADWP attempts again to dewater Long Valley and Little Round Valley, Mono County says they will be standing by, ready to bring them back to court for acting against their claims.
The big concern that now troubles all those fighting to protect Long Valley’s water is that no definition of “de-watering” was established by the court. We know that DWP would like to extract more water from the areas it has already severely compromised over the last 100 years, we know they are aggressive and well funded. We believe it is likely that LADWP will try to rely on the literal definition of waterless by simply providing so little water that these lands would be as destroyed as they would be on a waterless lease.
Following the decision, LADWP was quick to claim “our commitment to Long Valley continues.” We ask “their commitment to what, exactly?” Their past and present actions do not show concern for these valleys; We need a binding agreement that they will continue providing water based on yearly snowpack and water availability, as they have done historically. This has been the Keep Long Valley Green Coalition’s consistent ask, and now more than ever, we believe LADWP needs to show the Eastern Sierra they are actually dedicated to environmental and community health as they continually try to tell both us and the courts.
LADWP claimed the decision as victory not only for them, but for the State of California as a whole in their press release following the reversal: Anselmo Collins, LADWP Senior Assistant General Manager Water System, is quoted saying “The Appellate Court’s decision to reverse a 2021 ruling ensures that water managers across the State of California and at LADWP will continue to have the flexibility required to balance the state’s strained water resources with the needs of people and the environment.”
LADWP wants you to believe that this is their victory and also some greater moral victory for water providers everywhere. In their world, water providers shouldn't have to owe anything to those they take from, not even an assessment of the harm they might do by taking more water.
Flexibility is their code word, but when they say flexibility, we here at KLVG hear the meaning behind it. Flexibility to us would be to allow spreading of water water pursuant to the snowpack and water availability, allowing adjustment for better or worse years, also known as the practice they followed for decades before attempting to dry out the valleys. LADWP uses "flexibility" to express what they really want: complete control over whether or not to provide water at all in Long Valley, and they don't want the people of the Eastern Sierra to have any say in it. The utility claims to balance the needs of people and the environment, yet it does not give much respect to either, unless the unwritten specification is the needs of people and the environment *in Los Angeles only.*
Despite a ruling that seems in favor of LADWP, we are far from defeated so long as we stay vigilant. If LADWP is going to claim to the court that they won’t provide waterless leases, we are going to hold them to that promise. Politician, rancher, environmentalist, Native American, business owner, skier, climber, hiker, biker, birder— no matter who you are, we need you to help us hold LADWP accountable. In the fast paced world of today, with environmental and cultural issues constantly displayed in our news feeds, we need you to help keep LADWP’s practices in the Eastern Sierra in the public eye. Sharing our media with your friends, signing up for our newsletter and action alerts, and donating to the coalition are some of the small ways you can make a difference. Just a few minutes of your time is a serious threat to LADWP when it is combined with the voices of many.
We want a binding agreement from LADWP to continue historical irrigation pursuant to snowpack. Until we get that, we aren't going anywhere.