Runoff continues into IWV

Officials ponder how to capture, inject new water into basin

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Runoff continues into IWV“So this is what happens when the city of Los Angeles has no idea what to do with the water,” Kent McGowan says in a video he posted Sunday to his Facebook, where he shows results of his and his companion’s exploration of the water being diverted into the Indian Wells Valley through Freeman Gulch by the L.A. Department of Water and Power.

Since Feb. 25 LADWP has released approximately 1,700 acre feet of water — which would be a year’s supply for thousands of families.

McGowan and Holly Farris had seen media reports about the diversion, and decided to see if they could find where the water was collecting.

“We were excited about the idea of seeing flowing water in the desert,” said Farris. “We like to go out exploring, had a free day and figured we’d go check it out (along with seeing all the wildflowers).”

What they found was a body of water near the base of the El Paso mountains. The water rushing out near Highway 14, just east of Freeman Gulch, creates a stream about six feet wide and three feet deep. After about two and a half miles, the wash opens up and the water spreads out to about 30 feet, with some sections running as deep as two feet. By then the water breaks up into half a dozen streams that eventually dry up.

But the potential for longterm capture of this water is what has stirred up interest in the arid Indian Wells Valley, in recovery from a historic drought and in the throes of precedent-setting discussions about how to manage the local groundwater supply.

While this gift appears to come at an opportune time, most experts say that what doesn’t evaporate will be absorbed by root systems and clay topsoil — with very little percolating down to the water table located between 200 and 400 feet below the surface.

With snowpack along the southeastern Sierra Nevada at 240 percent the normal yield, LADWP began diverting water in anticipation of an estimated 1 million acre feet of water flowing down the mountains as the warm weather begins melting vast amounts of ice.

Although water is being diverted all along the corridor, too much diversion into Owens Valley will damage the $1-billion dust mitigation operations on the lakebed.

The problem is that IWV currently has no way to capture that water for future use.

“I think this is an opportunity,” said IWV Water District General Manager Don Zdeba. “But in a way, it’s a missed opportunity this year.”

Zdeba said that before he joined the district, LADWP put out a request around 2008-09 for proposals for water banking projects. IWVWD was among the agencies that responded and was apparently chosen as the preferred site.

Although the local groundwater table would keep only approximately 15 percent of the water banked, it would have still have been a benefit, said Zdeba.

When he came on as general manager in 2012, the board directed him to look into the stalled project. At that time LADWP was focused on an interconnect between the California and Los Angeles aqueducts, said Zdeba, and officials were also concerned about whether there was enough volume to justify a water-banking project.

“They said if they did resurrect the project, they would still consider this location.”

An unexpectedly wet winter caught most California agencies off guard, said Zdeba.

“Nobody could have foreseen this winter. Last year a Godzilla El Nino was supposed to hit, and that ended up slipping by us altogether. Now we have a record snowfall and rainfall and a large amount of runoff anticipated.”

Unfortunately, he said, it’s probably too late to implement an affordable solution for capture this year. “And remember, they can turn it off again at any moment. But going forward, it would be nice to have an arrangement where if this happened again, we would be prepared for it.”

LADWP was originally releasing 45 cubic feet per second out of Free-man Gulch, but reportedly reduced the flow to about five CFPS.

Zdeba said there are a few ways the valley could feasibly capture that runoff, including putting in a series of wells to inject water deeper into the aquifer. “If you could break through the caliche, the water would percolate better,” though he does not know exactly what percentage of that water would be retained long term.

He added that LADWP may still reopen a dialog about water banking at some point, “but in a situation like this, putting the water directly into our aquifer would be ideal.”

Such a project would take coordination between multiple agencies and stakeholders, he said. “It doesn’t fall solely on the water district, though certainly we would participate.”

The main inhibitor against such a project moving forward appears to be uncertainty about how much more water will be diverted this year and if the area will experience a similar weather pattern in outyears.

James Yannotta, manager of the L.A. aqueduct, said that part of the reason the LADWP reduced flow into the IWV was the increase in demand for water in L.A.

“What we have done is certainly a benefit by providing water that wasn’t available before,” said Yannotta. “Anything we can do to help benefit the region, we call it beneficially using water, that certainly should be a high priority.”

There are few places LADWP has to divert water, he said, and Freeman Gulch just happens to be one of them. (Water has also been observed being released out of Cache Creek near Mojave and out of the Haiwee Reservoir near Coso Junction.)

However, he said, LADWP has no control over how local water is managed. “You will certainly have evaporation. It could be managed better, but I don’t have an answer for that because it’s not city of Los Angeles property.

“What happens where there are storms? Of course the ground gets wet, but it evaporates then, too,” said Yannotta. “It’s very difficult to actually control how it recharges the aquifer.”

Pictured: Water released by LADWP from Freeman Gulch gathers near the El Pasos. -- Photo by Holly Farris

Story First Published: 2017-04-07