Environment & Science

As alternatives dry up, Los Angeles DWP asserts water rights in Mammoth's creek

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is asserting its rights in Mammoth Creek in two separate lawsuits involving the Mammoth Community Water District.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is asserting its rights in Mammoth Creek in two separate lawsuits involving the Mammoth Community Water District.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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Mammoth Lakes has grown up around Mammoth Creek, and sought permits from regulators to use its water. Now the LADWP argues its rights are superior in two lawsuits.

A quick summer thunderstorm dries in patches on asphalt at Mammoth Creek Park. Local kids on dirt bikes cruise over a small bridge near the Old Mammoth Road.

Local businessman Tom Cage stands there too. He suspects few parkgoers appreciate the importance of the water flowing under the bridge.

“This creek is the lifeblood that goes through the community. And [it] supplies the community with a fair portion of water, year in and year out,” he said.

Cage nods a silent greeting at a family with fishing poles — not just because he owns Kittredge Sports, an outdoors shop that sells bait, bobbles and lures. He’s also on the board of the Mammoth Community Water District, which has developed protocols to keep enough water in the creek for trout. A gauge here measures their success.

“You have a fishery here that’s vital to the environment, vital to tourism, and that’s one of the things that we’ve worked on, studies upon studies for the last 15-plus years to make sure it doesn’t get harmed,” he said.

Water district manager Greg Norby emphasized that the district’s tried to be a “responsible steward” while doing so. Mammoth recycles water at two golf courses, and pumps from underground aquifers. Norby said this town has grown around the creek, and every time the city wanted more from the creek, it sought approval from state regulators.

“We’ve had those rights and licenses in one form or another for 60 years now,” Norby said.

LADWP now argues regulators shouldn’t have granted those rights because it holds rights on the creek senior to the town. Lawyers for the city of Los Angeles have filed one lawsuit opposing Mammoth’s plan for trout fishery flows.

In a separate lawsuit, L.A. seeks to block the town’s Urban Water Management Plan, a somewhat routine road map for water every California city makes.

The president of the board of Mammoth Community Water District, Tom Smith, said he has worked closely with DWP for years.

“Nothing has ever been said about water rights being senior and that the state had illegally granted our licenses to us for diversions that we’ve been operating on for 60 years,” said Smith.

Norby is frustrated.

“Squeezing the community of Mammoth Lakes is not the solution to the city of Los Angeles’ water problems,” he said.

Drought and climate change have complicated the job of the people responsible for ensuring that L.A. has enough water. The DWP’s director of water operations, Marty Adams, acknowledged that, but countered that the utility has a long history of asserting superior rights on the creek, and provided written evidence of several examples.

“[The] Department of Water and Power actually sent a letter, general manager Paul Lane back in 1973 filed a protest with the state of California over Mammoth’s filing for a water license on Mammoth Creek,” he said.

Mammoth’s allotment is small: the town can take a maximum of 2,760 acre-feet a year, at a rate of no more than 5 cubic feet a second. That’s about 1 percent of the present water flow through the Los Angeles Aqueduct, an amount Adams says is significant because various legal battles have forced L.A. to reduce how much water it takes from other parts of the eastern Sierra.

“We’ve left water in the Mono Basin, we’ve left water in Owens Lake and so we have a lot less water coming to the city. So as the Mammoth flow has increased, and our flow in the aqueduct has decreased, it’s become a bigger proportion.”

It’s not clear the DWP will convince the courts that Mammoth has been stealing L.A.'s water. In the meantime, both sides say compromise is still possible. Mammoth officials said what is clear is that if they lose this fight, they would probably have to buy water from L.A.

“We don’t have any alternatives. We don’t live next to the State Water Project, we don’t have a neighboring water district to go ask for water or tap into a big pipeline,” said the Mammoth Community Water District’s Norby.

DWP’s alternatives are drying up too — they’re growing less reliable. Marty Adams said L.A.'s had to buy expensive replacement water, and it’s not alone. Adams makes no apologies for his agency aggressively protecting what it sees as its rights.

“I think people need to know we’re serious. We’ve had, this is probably the third or fourth issue since I’ve been involved, in the last few years, where we’ve taken a firm step," Adams said.

If DWP’s legal offensives against the town of Mammoth Lakes are successful, L.A. could secure more water from Mammoth Creek in the short term. In the longer term, L.A. could secure its place at the front of the line in case of a future scarcity.