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Volume 2 - Issue 1
Late January 2022

Water: A Cultural Resource - Part 2

(If you missed Part 1 of this narrative, click here)

By Jamie Della

"First in time, first in right" is a term synonymous with the prior water appropriation system. This phrase denotes how those with the oldest, and therefore most senior appropriations of water have priority over other younger, or more junior, water rights during times of insufficient water supply. 

The Native American irrigation system which existed in the Owens Valley prior to ranchers, settlers, or Mulholland’s aqueduct presents a challenge to current water law and threatens the narrative from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP).

One of the biggest arguments of water rights revolves around what time on the historical spectrum you begin and on how words like “first” and “beneficial use” are interpreted. Or how one people’s “beneficial use” ceases to be possible when it is interrupted by state violence, forced relocation and incarceration, and forcible land acquisition at both public and private hands. 

The Owens Valley Paiute, who refer to themselves as the Nuumu, irrigated the land for centuries before ranchers and other settlers arrived, as documented in maps and reports from the 1850s and in the ditch remnants still visible in places today. The Nuumu diverted the numerous eastern Sierra creeks and streams to grow plants for food, medicines, and fiber, and to create habitat for game.

1855 W. Von Schmidt land survey map depicting “Indian” irrigation ditches

In a panel discussion for a virtual screening of Paya: The Water Story of the Paiute last June, Teri Red Owl explained that one of the things she wants the public to understand about historical Paiute water use is that, “Irrigation wasn’t invented by somebody else. We did irrigation. We were doing irrigation here… forever, basically. That's how we look at history… we rotated the water so that we could use the water as efficiently as possible to water the areas that needed to be greened.”

Where has all the water gone?

Water is commonly measured in acre-feet. One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land, about the size of a football field, one foot deep. When DWP completed the second barrel of its L.A. Aqueduct in 1970, DWP turned on old and new groundwater pumps located throughout the Owens Valley to fill the additional export capacity. The annual amount of DWP pumping since 1970 is about 85,000 acre-feet per year. Environmental impacts of the pumping were both sudden and protracted: Several natural springs immediately stopped flowing, while grassy meadows gradually degenerated into dust and weeds.

In 1972, Inyo County commenced California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) litigation against Los Angeles seeking the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on DWP’s plan to increase groundwater pumping to fill the second aqueduct. Courts rejected DWP’s early, feeble attempts to comply with CEQA. In October 1991, Los Angeles and Inyo County approved the Long Term Water Agreement, which is a plan for managing groundwater pumping.

Even so, the CEQA judges were not satisfied with the EIR on the Water Agreement until a settlement involving several other parties was completed in 1997. The final EIR addressed the impacts of DWP’s groundwater pumping since 1970 and mandated DWP mitigate the environmental damage by implementing many projects. Thirty years later, several of these mitigation projects have still not been completed. (For more information on the last 100+ years of water history in the Owens Valley from the perspective of the Inyo County Water Department, click here).

Something Fishy

One of these mitigation projects, located at Fish Springs Hatchery, is not ecological but economical, as sport fishing for non-native trout is one of the major tourism economic drivers for Bishop. Before 1970, natural spring flows of about 16,000 acre-feet per year at Fish Springs provided plenty of water needed for fish hatchery operations. But, in anticipation of the L.A. Aqueduct’s second barrel, DWP installed big pumps at the site, capable of pumping 21,000 acre-feet per year. When these wells were turned on in 1970, natural spring flows ceased. Effects of groundwater drawdown by these wells extended for miles, killing or stressing groundwater-dependent plants and lowering the water in non DWP wells.

The Fish Springs Hatchery wells were operated continuously for fifty years until pumping was suspended due to a bacterial outbreak in July 2020. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) euthanized 3.2 million infected trout in the Mojave River, Black Rock, and Fish Spring Hatcheries and disinfected the hatcheries’ facilities, raceways, and ponds. During the ensuing months, despite having the longest period on record without precipitation in the region, the groundwater table rose eight and a half feet in places after four months of no pumping. The immediate and rapid rise in water levels indicates the spring may, in time, resume flowing. 

During this period, CDFW was asked to estimate its true water needs for fish production. They discovered that water could be reduced at least 12 percent to maintain current production at Fish Springs Hatchery.

As a result, according to Aaron Steinwand of the Inyo County Water Department, “CDFW and DWP are investigating the installation of valves between the wells and the hatchery to allow the hatchery staff to adjust flows to only what is required for fish production. The valve system is being worked out by DWP engineers, and we don’t yet know what their final recommendation will be.” 

Photo courtesy of @michelleatthecanyon

Fishing for Solutions

The modern history of Owens Valley’s tribal people is inextricably connected to water politics in the valley: The federal legislation that created the reservations for the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine tribes, did so in the context of an “exchange” between the federal government and the City of Los Angeles – the “1939 Land Exchange,” in which the federal government exchanged 2,913.5 acres of land held in trust for Owens Valley Paiute Indians for 1,391.48 acres owned by L.A. Consent from a majority of the affected Indians was ostensibly a requirement for the exchange to occur, yet many of the consenting signatures were merely  x’s and many believe foul play was behind the majority approval. Likewise, no consideration was given to the indigenous people of Payahuunadu in the late nineteenth century, when people of European descent entered the valley and, with the support of federal troops, dispossessed the Paiutes of their farmland and began using the Paiute irrigation systems for themselves. And the Paiutes were likewise not consulted when invasive fish species were brought into the valley, with adverse effects on the endemic plant and animal species.

This terrible legacy cannot be erased. We can instead choose to employ conservation practices for our vibrant fishing industry and sustainability for the land, water and people who call the Eastern Sierra home. The historic use of natural and living waters indicates a water flow that once supported a diverse natural ecosystem and robust agriculture. With this in mind, we push our collective efforts to look for solutions for better water management practices using modern ecological, economic, and cultural resources. 

Steinwand notes, “There could be options to apply effluent from the hatchery to lands downstream similar to projects elsewhere in the valley where DWP-pumped water is used for either irrigation or environmental projects. Some ideas have been suggested in the past, but none progressed beyond the conceptual step. Currently, there is no obligation for DWP to implement such a project.” 

We hope to convince DWP commissioners that literally thousands of people care about maintaining the pristine beauty of the Eastern Sierra, by keeping more water local.

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