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12/14/2011 OVC and DFG settle hatchery and stocking EIR lawsuit
The Owens Valley Committee (OVC) and the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) have reached a settlement in OVC's lawsuit challenging DFG's 2010 Environmental Impact Report for its statewide hatchery and stocking program.

When it filed the lawsuit in February 2010, OVC alleged that DFG's Environmental Impact Report failed to adequately examine past, current, and future impacts on Owens Valley springs and alkali meadows from groundwater pumping to supply fish hatcheries at Black Rock and Fish Springs in the Owens Valley. DFG leases the land for the hatcheries from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).

"The agreement is consistent with DFG's commitment to balance the diversified use of fish and wildlife for the benefit of the larger public," said Donald Mooney, OVC's attorney, "but it also protects habitat in the Owens Valley and ensures the survival of species and natural communities in this very unique region of California."

The Black Rock and Fish Springs hatcheries began operations in 1941 and 1952, respectively, to supply trout for the DFG stocking program in Inyo and Mono counties. Back then, both hatcheries relied on large, on-site natural springs for their water supplies. Records from 1936 to 1959 reported an average flow volume of approximately 8,000 acre-feet of water per year at Blackrock Springs. Approximately 16,400 acre-feet per year flowed from Fish Springs. The two hatcheries used natural spring flows for their operations until approximately 1970, when LADWP began large-scale groundwater pumping in the Owens Valley to supply its second aqueduct. Los Angeles had already installed large production wells in the vicinity of the two hatcheries as part of the second aqueduct project.

The production wells supplied the hatcheries with significantly more water than the springs did: an average of approximately 13,000 acre-feet per year at Blackrock and 24,000 acre-feet per year at Fish Springs. Combined pumping for the two hatcheries now comprises between 40 and 60 percent of all groundwater pumping in the Owens Valley every year, and nearly all of the water that flows through those hatcheries is then discharged to the Los Angeles Aqueduct for export. Not surprisingly, the hatchery production wells dried the springs at both hatcheries and have kept them dry.

The hatchery supply wells are exempt from on-off provisions of the Inyo/Los Angeles Long Term Water Agreement–provisions meant to avoid environmental impacts to the Owens Valley from groundwater pumping–because they are now the sole source of water for the hatcheries.

During recent settlement discussions, OVC learned that LADWP had conferred with DFG before installing the production wells that dried up the springs. DFG redesigned and rebuilt the two hatcheries in order to use groundwater from those wells. Neither of these facts was discussed in DFG's 2010 hatchery and stocking Environmental Impact Report or in a 1991 Environmental Impact Report that addressed the effects of pumping groundwater and diverting additional surface water to supply Los Angeles' second Owens Valley aqueduct.

Coincidentally, the change in the two hatcheries' water supply from the springs' natural flows to groundwater pumping took place in 1970, which is also when the California Environmental Quality Act took effect. However, DFG did not conduct an analysis of the change in water supply for its Owens Valley hatcheries or for its other statewide hatchery and stocking programs as required by CEQA until the Sacramento County Superior court ordered it to do so in 2007. Even then, DFG's Final Environmental Impact Report on the hatchery and stocking program, issued in 2010, only examined effects of ongoing pumping with regard to a 2004 to 2008 baseline period. OVC challenged the 2010 report on the basis that the DFG should have examined environmental impacts that occurred since 1970, when the California Environmental Quality Act took effect and the hatcheries began to be supplied with pumped groundwater, rather than only those impacts that have occurred after the arbitrary 2004-2008 baseline. OVC also alleged that DFG should adequately examine foreseeable impacts of continued pumping to supply the Black Rock and Fish Springs hatcheries.

The settlement agreement provides for DFG to identify a groundwater pumping limit at Black Rock Hatchery no greater than 8,000 acre-feet per year, the approximate amount of the springs' original flow. Although that is a reduction from the current pumping average of 12,000 to 13,000 acre-feet per year, DFG deems the amount adequate to supply hatchery fish production. DFG has also agreed to support a modification of the current “exempt” status for the two Black Rock hatchery supply wells to limit the pumping exemption to 8,000 acre-feet per year.

Because DFG receives hatchery water from and leases the hatchery and associated wells and pumps from LADWP, these modifications will be subject to LADWP's approval. The settlement agreement therefore provides for the DFG, by January 2012, to present a proposal to LADWP that addresses potential environmental benefits of reduced pumping and to modify the existing hatchery supply wells, at DFG’s cost, to enable the limits on pumping. The proposal will also include a plan to maintain historic fish production levels in the Eastern Sierra to accommodate for any reduced fish production due to reduced groundwater pumping at Black Rock.
The settlement also provides for work at Fish Springs, allowing collaboration between the DFG and OVC to conduct an impact analysis in the Big Pine well field at the Fish Springs Hatchery.

“The primary goal of this effort is to try to determine changes to groundwater levels and vegetation both before and after the Inyo/LA Long Term Water Agreement ‘baseline period’ of 1984-1986,” explained Mark Bagley, OVC’s President and Policy Director. The joint analysis will evaluate the potential of allowing water leaving the Fish Springs Hatchery to infiltrate into soils in the Big Pine well field and examine whether or not such infiltration might improve groundwater levels.

If the OVC and the DFG conclude that groundwater infiltration is feasible and would have substantial positive effects on groundwater levels in the Big Pine well field, the DFG will work with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board to develop a plan to increase infiltration. That plan may include water detention basins, re-injection of water, wetland treatment areas, and/or reconfiguration of the Fish Springs Hatchery’s settling ponds. The OVC has agreed not to seek pumping restrictions below the current 25,000 acre-feet per year pumping capacity at Fish Springs Hatchery during the evaluation period.

“Our objectives in bringing the lawsuit have been met with this settlement,” Bagley wrote in a statement discussing the lawsuit. “....[N]othing seems to move very fast, but...we believe we will see some changes for the better.”

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