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Fight over Mammoth Creek could determine town's future: Mammoth needs the water. DWP wants it. Now what?

March 2, 2012

Mammoth Creek. Photo/Jesse Barlet

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Mammoth Creek is the reason that the town of Mammoth Lakes exists. 

Take away that water and there is no town.

So when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power recently sued Mammoth claiming that it owned the water rights to all of Mammoth Creek, things got tense. 
 
When the department filed another legal action (“a writ of mandamus”) essentially asking the courts to declare the same thing three weeks ago, it got more tense.
 
And last week, when Mammoth Community Water District Manager Greg Norby returned from a court-mandated “settlement” talk with DWP empty-handed, after asking for a hold on further legal actions until both entities had more time to negotiate, it got even more tense.
 
Set aside the houses and roads and restaurants and yes, even Mammoth Mountain. These aren’t the things that make this town.
 
Without Mammoth Creek, none of it would be there.
 
There’s no town, no city, and certainly no resort without a good water source. In these parts, that means Mammoth Creek. Everything else—Convict Creek, McGee Creek, the Owens River, groundwater, the San Joaquin River—they are all downhill, too far away, or too deep underground, to be a cost-effective water source for Mammoth.
 
The town currently gets an average of 50 percent of all its water needs from Mammoth Creek. Before 1990, when the water district began drilling wells, it was 100 percent. To grow to what the water district expects is Mammoth’s top population capacity of 12,300 people, and to accommodate the visitors expected to be here at that time, all of the district’s existing water rights to Mammoth Creek will need to be tapped. Without the creek, the only solution would be groundwater (groundwater is 10 times more expensive than surface water to produce, Norby said), or a sharp moratorium on growth.
 
“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over,” out here in the American West, said Mark Twain.
 
And sure enough.
 
“It’s tempting to say, what’s one more drop?” DWP’s director of water operations Marty Adams said. “But the little bites add up to something significant.”
 
All of the water the community of Mammoth uses is distributed by the local water district. What makes the whole thing so frustrating, Norby said, is that the total amount comes down to about one percent of all of the water that DWP takes from the entire Owens River Basin.
 
In other words, it’s not much in the grand scheme of what DWP takes from the Eastern Sierra and it’s an even smaller percentage of what the DWP actually produces for its customers (the Eastern Sierra provides about one third of DWP’s total water supplies).
 
But for Mammoth, it’s a huge number—2,760 acre-feet, enough water to allow the town to survive and to grow (an acre-foot of water is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land one foot deep).
 
“That’s what we are fighting about,” Norby said. “To DWP, it’s a drop in the bucket. To Mammoth, it’s an existential threat.”
 
But Adams argued that the big question about who really has the rights to Mammoth Creek is a question worth asking.
 
“Historically, we used to export about 400,000-acre feet of water a year from your area,” he said. “Now, that number has dwindled to about 200,000-acre feet to 250,000-acre feet a year and of this, with the diversions to Mono Lake, the Owens Lake, the Owens River, and various mitigation projects we have been required to do. It’s my job and my duty to the customers of DWP to secure the water rights that are ours.”
 
After decades of watching Mammoth grow and use its State Water Resources Control Board water rights unchallenged, after a two-year stakeholder review on a sate required project focusing on how to allocate water for a fishery on Mammoth Creek that included DWP, why is DWP only now suing the water district on such a big, big question?
 
That’s one question that Norby and other locals, including Mammoth’s Town Council members when they heard about the impending lawsuit late last year, want to know the answer to.
 
“I don’t have the whole answer to that,” Adams said last week. 
 
He did add that the lawsuit in January was triggered by a specific date; a 30-day window triggered by Mammoth’s approval of a Mammoth Creek fishery bypass agreement that the state required MCWD to do.
 
But he also said the whole issue of DWP believing it had the water rights to Mammoth Creek should not be a surprise to Mammoth Community Water District, even though Norby has said it was.
 
“We have been telling them for years that we believe we have senior water rights to the creek and asking them to analyze their projects with this in mind,” Adams said. “We meant it, even if they didn’t believe it.”
 
The other big question that Norby wants to know is this: Why is DWP suing Mammoth Community Water District instead of the state, which granted the Mammoth water district its water rights in the first place?
 
“The LADWP is currently proceeding with these actions because the issues have imminent legal deadlines that must be met,” Adams said in a recent email. “As a governmental agency, we will continue to review our options.”
 
Adams said he still believes there is room for a compromise that would allow both entities to get what they need, short of an all-out court fight.
 
“We are interested in working toward a solution,” he said. “We think there are options, like reclaiming more water, things that the water district there is already doing, that could allow us to have the water we believe is ours.”
 
Norby, too, said he is hoping to work things out. But one thing is clear, he said.
 
“We absolutely and fundamentally dispute that our water rights aren’t valid,” he said.
 
The Mammoth Community Water District and DWP are meeting again in Sacramento for another settlement agreement talk March 28. 
 
Both Norby and Adams say they hope they can reach a “tolling agreement,” which would suspend movement on legal action while the two organizations negotiate.

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