photo by Mike Prather





Why take action?

Any action, no matter how small, can have broad and lasting effects. A man with a bucket saved a species.

Small, dedicated groups have won a number of battles with LADWP to stop environmentally destructive practices in the valley. Even the smallest acts--from the turning of a faucet in Los Angeles to the turn of a fish in the Owens River Gorge--affect the Owens Valley and the decisions people make about it.

You can make a difference in the time it takes to say so. The Agreement and MOU provide a legal framework for environmentally sound management of Owens Valley water resources. Encourage agreement parties to abide by that framework by learning more from our news page, brochure, reading list, or related links, or by writing a letter about one of the following issues and reminding elected officials that you vote. For names and addresses, see our "Make Contact" page; for tips on writing and speaking out, see our "Tips" page. Your actions have a strong consequence downstream.

Speak out now

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Daniel Pritchett, Conservation Chair of the local Bristlecone Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, has provided detailed descriptions of some of the valley's most pressing groundwater issues and how you can help (see action items 1, 2, and archived items below, or, to learn more, see the Bristlecone CNPS's site on the Long Term Water Agreement). References appear below.

Action item 1: Drought Recovery Policy

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DWP inventoried vegetation as part of its grazing management program in 1984-1987. The inventory consisted of delineating parcels of homogeneous vegetation and estimating cover for perennial species in each parcel. Cover estimates were based on results of line point transects and/or visual inspection of the parcel. When the Long Term Water Agreement was signed in 1991, the LADWP inventory represented the best available data regarding status of vegetation and was accepted as "baseline" condition for management purposes. It was known at the time that there were problems in the mapping and assessment of particular parcels but the EIR directed the Technical Group to make any necessary changes.

During the years 1987-1989 (i.e. after baseline vegetation conditions had been determined but before the LTWA was negotiated), LADWP greatly increased its annual pumping. The mean annual pumping for 1987-1989 exceeded 160,000 acre feet, and water tables and cover of perennial vegetation declined dramatically. By the time the LTWA was signed in 1991 it was already apparent that the "highly experimental" on/off management protocol it called for would probably not be adequate to recover water tables and vegetation to baseline conditions. To deal with this, the Technical Group agreed to an "overlay" known as the Drought Recovery Policy (DRP). The DRP was included in the EIR to the LTWA. Pumping was managed in accordance with the DRP from 1991 through 2000 and during that period water tables gradually rose under many parcels and perennial cover correspondingly increased.

In 2001, LADWP unilaterally declared that the Drought Recovery Policy (DRP) was terminated. It based its decision on a report by its consultant Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH). Inyo County Water Department (ICWD) along with such groups as Bristlecone CNPS and the League of Women Voters all commented on obvious self-serving deficiencies of the report, but neither LADWP nor MWH ever addressed the comments.

The Arguments:

There are at least two grounds for objecting to DWP's termination of the DRP: 1) procedural and 2) substantive.

The procedural argument is that DWP has no right to unilaterally end a policy which was established by the Standing Committee. If the Standing Committee enacts a policy, only the Standing Committee should have the authority to modify or terminate the policy. If either DWP or Inyo County is allowed to unilaterally terminate policies of the Standing Committee, what is the point of having a Standing Committee at all?

The substantive argument is that the DRP should not be terminated because its goals have not been met. While some parcels have recovered, others clearly have not. Data submitted to the Technical Group by ICWD identify parcels throughout the valley where water tables and vegetation have never recovered to baseline levels. MWH's report (which justifies DWP's termination of the DRP) is fatally flawed for numerous reasons, of which the most obvious are the fact that the definition of water table recovery used by MWH is contradicted by the explicit goals of the DRP; and 2) the treatment of entire wellfields as units of analysis (instead of individual vegetation parcels) is inconsistent with the vegetation management protocols specified in the Green Book (the Technical Appendix to the LTWA).

If water tables are not recovered to the rooting zone of groundwater-dependent vegetation (GDV), significant impacts are inevitable. This assertion is based on both biology and simply by the definition of groundwater-dependent vegetation. While in certain cases particular species of groundwater-dependent plants show great resiliency to water stress, at some point groundwater-dependent vegetation must be allowed contact with groundwater if significant impacts are to be avoided. Some groundwater-dependent vegetation parcels, unfortunately, have had no access to groundwater for 16 years

On/Off management by itself is not adequate to recover the water to the rooting zone. That is why the DRP is so important. It is currently the only effective management strategy to meet the impact-avoidance requirements of the LTWA. Without the DRP, pumping programs amount to political horse-trading every year.

What to do:

Write the Board of Water and Power Commissioners and the Los Angeles Mayor. Ask that them to direct LADWP to abide by the Drought Recovery Policy until its goals have been realized (i.e. groundwater-dependent vegetation and water tables have recovered to baseline levels in all parcels) or until the Technical Group agrees upon a suitable replacement. Send a copy of your letter to your local newspaper and the LA Times. (See addresses in Make Contact.)

--Daniel Pritchett, Conservation Chair of the local Bristlecone Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (to learn more, see the Bristlecone CNPS's site on the Long Term Water Agreement)

Action item 2: Impact Avoidance

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The goal of the Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA; learn more about it on the Bristlecone CNPS's web site or at the Inyo County Water Department's site) is to avoid significant impacts while providing a reliable water supply to Los Angeles. In the EIR this is repeatedly re-phrased in the imperative: "…pumping will be managed to avoid impacts [italics added] …", (p. 5-14 City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and County of Inyo 1990) (pp. 2-11 & 2-12, City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and County of Inyo 1991). Other references in the imperative voice are on pages 2-42 and 2-45 and descriptions of impact avoidance as a "primary goal" of the LTWA are found on 2-58 and 2-69 (City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and County of Inyo 1991).


Notwithstanding the repeated references to the requirement of impact avoidance as a primary goal as noted above LADWP has repeatedly refused to acknowledge its responsibility to avoid impacts. Rather, it acknowledges only the secondary goal of mitigation after impacts become permanent. It has also on at least two occasions paraphrased the LTWA and eliminated the phrase "avoid impacts" entirely.

The first example is in arguments submitted to arbitrators in the dispute over the running of the McNally Canals in 2000. In this case water tables under several parcels in the Laws wellfield were (and still are) below the rooting zones of the vegetation mapped in the baseline period and vegetative cover in the parcels was (and still is) below that mapped in the baseline period. After 10 years of these conditions, Inyo County asked that LADWP raise water tables on the grounds that this was necessary to avoid significant impacts as required by the LTWA (Inyo County 2000). LADWP chose to misconstrue Inyo County's claim as an "unfulfilled mitigation" (pg. 9, City of Los Angeles 2001) and argued that Inyo County had not followed the procedures in section I.C.1 of the Green Book for mitigating impacts after the fact. In making this rebuttal, LADWP made no reference to any responsibility to avoid impacts (a "primary goal" of the LTWA) and acknowledged only the responsibility to mitigate impacts after the fact, (a "secondary goal" of the LTWA) (p. 10-70, City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and County of Inyo 1990).

A second example is in arguments submitted to arbitrators in the dispute over the LADWP's proposed 2001 pumping plan. Inyo County again cited the requirement of management to avoid impacts (Inyo County 2001). This time, in its response, LADWP made its position much clearer:
"In short, the Agreement requires the City to consider impacts of its groundwater pumping before implementing the annual plan, but does not authorize Inyo to restrict or limit the City's pumping before the fact. The Agreement instead sets forth the method of determining after the fact whether an impact to vegetation has occurred which is measurable, significant, and attributable to groundwater pumping" [italics added] (p.2 City of Los Angeles 2001b).
LADWP in this statement eliminated the phrase "avoid impacts" and replaced it with "consider impacts." Just as in the McNally Canals case (cited above), LADWP acknowledged only an obligation to mitigate after the fact rather than an obligation to avoid impacts in the first place.

A third example is in response to comments in the Mitigated Negative Declaration for the Irrigation Project at Laws. In response to a comment specifically citing DWP's refusal to acknowledge its responsibility for impact avoidance, DWP rephrased its obligation yet again. This time it asserted that "the Water Agreement established procedures for managing groundwater pumping in order to limit impacts to groundwater-dependent vegetation…"[italics added].  Once again,  LADWP could not bring itself to use the phrase "avoid impacts," notwithstanding the fact that impact avoidance is a "primary goal" of the LTWA.

In the three examples above LADWP acknowledged responsibility to "consider impacts" and "limit impacts" but not "avoid impacts." Instead, it acknowledged an obligation to mitigate after the fact. It is instructive to compare LADWP's emphasis on mitigation after the fact to the importance assigned to mitigation in the EIR for the LTWA (p. 10-70, City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and County of Inyo 1990): "It should be emphasized that under the Agreement, mitigation is not a primary goal, but a secondary tool to be employed if the primary goals are not fully achieved" [italics added].

To our knowledge LADWP has never acknowledged in writing its obligation to avoid impacts in the 12 years since the LTWA was signed.

Significance of the issue

Impact avoidance is the heart of the LTWA. It is precisely because Owens Valley had suffered so much from LADWP's impact-inducing management practices that an agreement requiring impact-avoidance (i.e. the LTWA) was negotiated in first place. LADWP's consistent refusal to acknowledge and implement the LTWA's requirement for impact avoidance can only be described as bad faith of the highest order. It a clear expression that LADWP is not about to abandon the environmentally abusive management practices of the past.

What to do:

Write the Board of Water and Power Commissioners and Los Angeles City Council.(See useful addresses in Make contact.) Ask that they direct LADWP to publicly acknowledge the explicit requirement of the LTWA that impacts must be avoided and change management practices accordingly. The only way impacts can be avoided is by allowing water tables under impacted vegetation parcels to rise to vegetation rooting zones. The only way water tables will rise is if groundwater pumping is reduced to a sustainable volume. At the moment, the best estimate of a sustainable annual pumping volume is about 70,000 af/year (Danskin 1998).

--Daniel Pritchett, Conservation Chair of the local Bristlecone Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (to learn more, see the Bristlecone CNPS's site on the Long Term Water Agreement)

Archived action items

The following action items, for the time being, no longer require action. For example, LADWP has agreed in a recent out-of-court settlement to build a 50 c.f.s. pumpback station, the comment deadline for the water conservation incentive plan is past, and the Draft Interim Agreement for groundwater pumping was rejected by the Inyo County Board of Supervisors. For educational purposes, however, we've chosen to leave these action items up on our site.

Action item 3: Review the Final Environmental Impact Report for the Lower Owens River Project

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The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) released a searchable PDF version of the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the Lower Owens River Project June 23, 2004. There's reason to fear, however, that the document may not meet up to everyone's ideals. Problems with the Draft Environmental Impact Report and Statement (DEIR/S) were numerous (see our comments on the DEIR/S). And although the FEIR was to be prepared jointly by Inyo County Water Department and LADWP, LADWP announced in May that it would be completing the document alone in order to meet the June 23, 2004 deadline imposed by a recent settlement. Since then, enough problems have emerged to warrant two new lawsuits, one brought by the Sierra Club regarding the adequacy of the EIR in meeting CEQA requirements (see 10/6/2004 news item) and one brought by the Owens Valley Committee and the Sierra Club that addresses shortcomings of the EIR in meeting MOU requirements (see 1/18/2005 news item). LADWP also has announced it will not meet its September 2005 deadline (originally June 2003) for getting water into the river, a deadline set by the aforementioned recent settlement after Los Angeles missed its June 2003 deadline.

What to do:

Obtain a CD copy of the Lower Owens River Project Final Environmental Impact Report from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (300 Mandich Street in Bishop, California) and review the sections that interest you. If you don't agree with the way the LORP is to be implemented, alert your elected officials or write a letter to the newspaper. Or, if you have no problems with the sections you've read and think they represent a job well-done, be sure to say so. Either way, if you live in the eastern Sierra, it's a good idea to acquaint yourself with this long-anticipated mitigation project.

Action item 4: Pumpback station

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The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has launched a lobbying campaign to persuade Inyo County and other parties to the MOU to allow it to build a pumpback station -- as part of the Lower Owens River Project (LORP) -- with a capacity three times larger than that permitted in the Inyo-LA Water Agreement.

In its lobbying, LADWP argues that it can meet its requirements for maintaining and enhancing habitat in the Owens River delta without using the full volume of water in the annual Owens River "flushing flows" (i.e. large flows designed to duplicate annual floods which occur in unmanipulated rivers). It claims to be entitled, therefore, to capture these flows with the proposed enlarged capacity of the pumping station.

Regardless of LADWP's claims regarding flows and habitat, any enlargement of the capacity of the pumping station will facilitate development of new well-fields upstream of the station. This fact is not being publicized by LADWP and is the basis of our objection to the proposed enlargement.

The purpose of the LORP is to mitigate impacts of LADWP's groundwater pumping -- not induce creation of new well-fields. There are currently no wells east of the LA Aqueduct. Water from any new wells on either side of the Owens River adjacent to the LORP would drain to the Owens River and flow to the pumpback station. By providing the capacity to capture this water the proposed enlargement would convert the LORP from a mitigation project to a groundwater export facility and so subvert the purpose of the LORP.

An LADWP spokesman recently explained that the enlarged capacity would be used only to capture the flushing flows which occur two weeks a year. He indicated that for the remaining 50 weeks of the year the enlarged capacity (100 cfs) would not be used. This strains credulity.

As a party to both the Water Agreement and MOU, Inyo County could insist that the pumpback station meet the requirements of the Water Agreement. According to the director of the Inyo County Water Department, however,the county has taken the position that if the other MOU parties agree to the enlarged capacity, the county would not object. We believe the county should defend its interests and reject the proposed enlargement.

LADWP is, in effect, trying to re-negotiate a portion of the Water Agreement and its efforts are being taken seriously. The Water Agreement and MOU are the products of years of arduous negotiations. LADWP signed both documents and it is legally obligated to adhere to them. We ask that LADWP carry out its obligation with regard to the size of the pumpback station.

Action: Write to the Inyo County Board of Supervisors or the LADWP Board of Water and Power Commissioners. Urge Inyo County to reject a larger station and urge Los Angeles to abide by the terms of the Inyo-Los Angeles Water Agreement. (See addresses in Make contact.)

Action item 5: Comment on irrigation water conservation incentive program

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Background: This March, LADWP announced plans for an irrigation water "conservation" incentive program that would encourage lessees to reduce the amount of irrigation water they use by switching to sprinkler systems (rather than using flood irrigation) and adopting other water conservation methods. Lessees would receive credit for every 1/10th of an acre foot of water (below five acre feet per acre) that they don't use for irrigation. The water "saved" would be then be available to LADWP for export. For example, LADWP notes that if all lessees reduced their water use from 5 acre feet per acre to 3.5 acre feet per acre, an additional 27,900 acre-feet of water a year would be available to LADWP at a cost of $450,000 in lease rebates, as opposed to the $10 million it would cost LADWP to buy the water elsewhere.

Sounds good, on the surface. Unfortunately, however, because LADWP has already diverted the vast majority of Owens Valley surface water, flood irrigation has become an important (and one of the few) remaining means of groundwater recharge for the Owens Valley. Changing irrigation methods and reducing irrigation water would both reduce groundwater recharge (thus potentially affecting groundwater-dependent vegetation) and affect vegetation that depends on tail water, or the water that flows from irrigated lands.

Aside from obvious environmental concerns, LADWP is obligated to avoid impacts to vegetation by the Long Term Water Agreement (they propose in this plan to instead address impacts as they occur). Furthermore, the 1991 EIR addressing LADWP's water gathering activities in the valley specified five acre feet of irrigation water per acre for leased ranch lands. Nevertheless, LADWP has asked for a mitigated negative declaration for their new program. The program starts before the comment period ends.

What to do:

Review a copy of and submit your comments on LADWP's initial environmental study for the "Water Conservation Incentive Program" (available at LADWP's Bishop office on 300 Mandich Street or on display in your local library) before April 5, 2004.  Ask LADWP how they intend to abide by the obligation to avoid vegetation impacts rather than responding as they occur. Ask for a clarification of impacts to groundwater recharge and how or if LADWP will reduce groundwater pumping to compensate. Point out that the goals of the conservation program may violate the Long Term Water Agreement and that the program would change conditions used as a baseline for the 1991 EIR. Send a synopsis of your comments on the study to your local newspaper as a letter to the editor. (See addresses on our "Make Contact" page.)

Read and comment on the Draft Three-Year Interim Agreement for groundwater pumping  (see a copy at the Inyo County Water Department website)

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Among other proposed measures, the Draft Agreement would allow LADWP to pump 85,750 acre feet from 2004 to 2005, far more than is sustainable. For years 2005-2006 and 2006-2007, groundwater pumping amounts would depend on runoff rather than on wellfield vegetation conditions, thus disconnecting pumping from its impacts. If Owens Valley runoff reaches more than 95% of the yearly average, the agreement would allow more than the average sustainable amount of pumping in those years.  Although water tables have still not recovered to within the rooting zone of vegetation, the plan makes no allowances for water table recovery and in fact would likely drop water table levels, further harming vegetation. The Draft Agreement departs from both the letter and the spirit of the Long Term Water Agreement, a primary goal of which is to avoid impacts to vegetation.

What to do:

Contact your supervisors and ask them to reject the Draft Interim Agreement or, at the very least, to allow more than seven days for public comment.

What is groundwater-dependent vegetation?

(Thanks for this explanation to Daniel Pritchett, Conservation Chair of the local Bristlecone Chapter of the California Native Plant Society)

In arid environments water is often a limiting factor for plant growth. There are two basic strategies plant species have evolved for dealing with water stress: 1) drought tolerance and 2) drought evasion.

Drought tolerant plants have developed strategies to maximize their efficiency in use of water. This allows them to thrive in areas where moisture is not adequate for most species to survive at all. Alluvial fans and slopes of desert mountains are characteristic landforms for drought tolerant species. Some local examples are shadscale and creosote bush.

Drought evasive plants, on the other hand, have developed strategies to maximize growth in areas where a reliable supply of water is available. They out-compete drought tolerant species where water is abundant but don't occur at all where it is not and so evade drought entirely. They typically occur along rivers and streams and in areas where groundwater is close to the surface.

Groundwater dependent vegetation (GDV) is the phrase used in the LTWA and its technical appendix (aka the Green Book) to describe vegetation composed of drought evasive species. Management of GDV is one of the primary concerns of the LTWA because GDV is vulnerable to water table drawdowns caused by groundwater pumping.

In the Owens Valley, GDV originally covered large areas of the valley floor, as well as narrow strips along streams coming down from the Sierra and isolated patches surrounding springs. Much of the original acreage of meadow was cleared for agriculture and for construction of the towns.

Return to Action item 1

Return to Action item 2

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City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and County of Inyo 1990. Water from the Owens Valley to supply the second Los Angeles Aqueduct 1970 to 1990 and 1990 onward pursuant to a long term groundwater management plan. Draft Environmental Impact Report. Volume I. Unpublished report. September 1990.

City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and County of Inyo. 1991. Response to comments on September 1990 Draft Environmental Impact Report. Water from the Owens Valley to supply the second Los Angeles Aqueduct 1970 to 1990 and 1990 onward pursuant to a long term groundwater management plan. Volumes I-III. Unpublished report. August 1991.

City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power 2001. Response to notice of dispute resolution. Unpublished manuscript submitted to Inyo County. July 2, 2001.

City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power 2001b. Reply to Inyo County Water Department Comments Dated May 18, 2001 and Transmittal Letter Dated May 2, 2001. Unpublished manuscript submitted to Inyo County Water Department. June 1, 2001.

Coufal, G. 2002. 2001-2002 Pumping Totals and Runoff Year Water Use tables. Unpublished report submitted to the Technical Group. May 20, 2002.

Coufal, G. 2002b. 2002-2003 Operations Plan and Pumping Program. Unpublished report submitted to Inyo County Water Department. April 10, 2002.

Danskin W.R. 1998. Evaluation of the hydrologic system and selected water management alternatives in the Owens Valley, California. US Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2370-H. 175pp.

Erb, T. 2002. LA, Inyo, and others need to work together. Guest Opinion. Inyo Register. August 20, 2002.

Inyo County. 2000. Notice of Dispute. Unpublished manuscript submitted to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. October 13, 2000.p

Inyo County. 2001. Basis of Inyo County's Disagreement with LADWP's proposed annual Owens Valley operation plan, 2001-2002 runoff year. Unpublished manuscript submitted to LADWP. May 18, 2001.

Inyo County Water Department 2002. Map released at Inyo County Supervisors Meeting. February 19, 2002.

Inyo County Water Department, 2003. Responses to comments draft mitigated negative declaration Irrigation Project in the Laws Area. Unpublished Manuscript downloaded from Inyo County Water Department website

Inyo/Los Angeles Technical Group 2002. Request for adoption of this report to the Standing Committee on the following subjects: 1) 2002-2003 Runoff Year Owens Valley Operations Plan; 2) Drought Recovery Policy; 3) Reductions in water supply to specified enhancement/mitigation projects; 4) Irrigation water at Laws Ranch. Unpublished report submitted to the Inyo/Los Angeles Standing Committee. May 31, 2002.

James, G. 2001. Comments to the Inyo County Water Commission, October 8, 2001.

Manning, Sara J. 2002. Classification of re-inventoried vegetation parcels according to the drought recovery policy, 2001. Unpublished report submitted to the Inyo/LA Technical Group. February 19, 2002.

Manning, S. J. 2001. Vegetation conditions in monitored Owens Valley parcels in 2000. Unpublished report submitted to the Inyo/LA Technical Group. August, 2001.

Manning, S. 2000. Summary of 1999 perennial cover and life form changes in parcels inventoried with line-point transects. Unpublished report submitted to the Inyo/LA Technical Group. April, 2000.

Manning, S.J. and R. F. Harrington. 1999. Effects of water table fluctuations on phreatophytic plant communities in the Owens Valley, California. Presentation to the American Geophysical Union. November 16, 1999. San Francisco, CA. Supplement to EOS, Transactions, AGU 80:46, (Presentation December 17, 1999).

Manning, S. 1999. Summary of 1998 perennial cover and life form changes in parcels inventoried with line-point transects. Unpublished report submitted to the Inyo/LA Technical Group April, 1999.

Manning, S. 1998. Results of 1997 vegetation re-inventory. Unpublished report submitted to the Inyo/LA Technical Group. May, 1998.

Manning, S. 1997. Line Point data analysis, 1996: Overview. Unpublished report submitted to the Inyo/LA Technical Group report. March, 1997.

Manning, S. 1992. Measuring vegetation change: Preliminary report. Unpublished Report submitted to the Inyo/LA Technical Group. February,1992.

Manning, Sara J. 1992b. Describing and managing Owens Valley vegetation according to water use. in The History of Water: Eastern Sierra Nevada, Owens Valley, White-Inyo Mountains. C.A. Hall, V. Doyle-Jones, and B. Widawski, eds. White Mountain Research Station Symposium Volume 4.

Montgomery Watson Harza 2001. Evaluation of the Drought Recovery Policy. Unpublished manuscript submitted to the Technical Group. December 10, 2001.

Pritchett, D. 2002. LADWP tries to evade responsibility to "avoid" impacts. Bulletin of the Bristlecone Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. March 2002 22(2).

Steinwand, Aaron. 2000. The effects of Kc and Green Book models for vegetation water requirements on permanent monitoring site On/Off status. Unpublished manuscript submitted to the Inyo/LA Technical Group. April 24, 2000.

Steinwand, Aaron 1997. Groundwater use by Nevada saltbush. The Owens Valley Monitor. Inyo County Water Department.