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Southwest Climate Outlook - El Niño Tracker - January 2019

Friday, January 18, 2019

Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) are still above average across the equatorial Pacific (Fig. 1), but they have fallen since last month (Fig. 2). Atmospheric conditions still have not coupled with oceanic conditions, and the Madden Julian Oscillation (MJO) is being discussed as one source of this delayed interaction. Forecasters continue to expect an El Niño to form, provided atmospheric conditions catch up with oceanic conditions and that SSTs remain above normal, but the window for relevance of such an event to the Southwest (i.e. the effect on cool-season precipitation) is closing. On Jan. 8, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology remained in an El Niño alert, with the tropical Pacific Ocean in line with a weak El Niño but the atmosphere showing “no consistent El Niño signal,” a requisite part of sustaining an El Niño event. The agency noted that it is late in the season for El Niño formation. On Jan. 10, the International Research Institute (IRI) issued an ENSO Quick Look, highlighting above-average SSTs along with lagging atmospheric conditions. It maintained an 82-percent chance of an El Niño during January to March and a 66-percent chance from March to May (Fig. 3). On Jan. 10, the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) maintained its assertion of the presence of El Niño conditions in the equatorial Pacific despite lack of atmospheric reinforcement, and called for an 80-percent chance of these conditions lasting through the spring. On Jan. 10, the NOAA Climate Prediction Center (CPC) continued its El Niño watch, but saw decreases in SST anomalies, noted the continued lack of atmospheric reinforcement of El Niño, and highlighted a possible link to the MJO. CPC’s outlook dropped to a 65-percent chance of an El Niño forming and lasting through spring. The North American Multi-Model Ensemble (NMME) points toward a weak El Niño at present lasting through the spring (Fig. 4).

Summary: This year highlights the challenge of seasonal forecasting with unclear El Niño signals. Equatorial SSTs are within the range of a weak El Niño, but the delayed development of atmospheric conditions is the main factor holding back a more confident outlook. The presence of seasonal variability attributed to the MJO further complicates the contingencies and uncertainty attached to seasonal outlooks. In the Southwest, El Niño events are typically associated with increased chances for above-normal winter precipitation, but weak events demonstrate limited correlation with above-normal precipitation, and some of the wettest winters in the Southwest have been under ENSO-neutral conditions. This winter, portions of Arizona and New Mexico have recorded wetter- and cooler-than-average conditions for much of December and January thus far, which lines up with the narrative of wetter winters under El Niño. However, direct attribution to El Niño is challenging given the small sample size, aforementioned weak correlations, and the challenges in tracking precipitation anomalies in a region that already sees relatively infrequent rain events in a “wet” year.

Online Resources

  • Figure 1 - Australian Bureau of Meteorology -
  • Figure 2 - NOAA - Climate Prediction Center -
  • Figure 3 - International Research Institute for Climate and Society -
  • Figure 4 - NOAA - Climate Prediction Center -
  • Equatorial Niño Regions - For more information:
  • Madden Julian Oscilation - For more information:

Southwest Climate Outlook January 2019 - Climate Summary

Thursday, January 17, 2019

December Precipitation and Temperature: December precipitation was variable across the Southwest, although temperatures were more consistently average to above average. Precipitation in Arizona was mostly below average to average with small areas of above average in the southeastern and northeastern corners of the state (Fig. 1). In New Mexico, precipitation was average to above average across most of the state (Fig. 1). Temperatures ranged from normal to above normal across Arizona and New Mexico.

Seasonal Precipitation and Temperature: Three-month precipitation totals reflect the much-wetter-than-average October, in conjunction with some December storm activities, with most of the Southwest receiving above-normal to much-above-normal precipitation since Oct. 1 (Fig. 2). Temperatures over the same period ranged from mostly normal to above normal in Arizona and mostly normal to below normal in New Mexico.

Drought: The Jan. 8 U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) captures some of the improvements in drought conditions in the Southwest, particularly along the US-Mexico border in Arizona and New Mexico, even while persistent drought conditions remain in the Four Corners region (Fig. 3). Drought in the Southwest poses a challenge in mapping different timescales and intensities of drought on a weekly basis. In a region already characterized by dry conditions, where accumulated precipitation deficits build over seasons and years, these drought characterizations can struggle to capture all of these inputs. Twelve-month precipitation rankings identify areas with accumulated precipitation deficits on an annual timescale (Fig. 4), while the 36-month standardized precipitation index (SPI) for the Southwest (Fig. 5) highlights overlapping areas experiencing drought and precipitation deficits on an even longer timescale.

Snowpack & Water Supply: Snow water equivalent (SWE) has seen an uptick with recent storm activity (see an extended discussion of snowpack in the Dec. 2018 CLIMAS Southwest Climate Podcast), although current SWE values in Arizona and New Mexico remain generally near or below average as of Jan. 13 (Fig. 6). Reservoir storage remains a persistent concern, as water levels have been impacted by long-term drought and accumulated precipitation deficit. Most of the reservoirs are at or below their long-term averages, and a few of the Rio Grande reservoirs are especially low (see Arizona and New Mexico reservoir storage).

El Niño Tracker: The seemingly imminent El Niño event looks a little less certain at this point (see El Niño Tracker). Sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) remain above average, but are closer to normal compared to last month, and there still has not been the definitive coupling between oceanic and atmospheric conditions that would more clearly delineate El Niño conditions. The forecasting community has been discussing the role that the Madden Julian Oscillation (MJO) might be playing in hindering the development of more definitive El Nino conditions, but forecasters continue to look to spring as the mostly likely period of increased coupling. A weak El Niño event remains the scenario with the highest probability, but it is far from the seemingly sure thing of last month, with forecasted probabilities now ranging from 60 to 80 percent.

Precipitation and Temperature Forecast: The three-month outlook for January through March calls for increased chances of above-normal precipitation in much of Arizona and northern Mexico and nearly all of New Mexico (Fig. 7, top). The three-month temperature outlook calls for increased chances of above-normal temperatures in northern Arizona and New Mexico (Fig. 7, bottom).

Online Resources

  • Figures 1-2,4-6 - Western Regional Climate Center -
  • Figure 3 - U.S. Drought Monitor -
  • Figure 7 - International Research Institute for Climate and Society -

Please Note: Due to the U.S. government shutdown, some federal data and resources are unavailable or are not updating.

Understanding Farmers’ Choices, Trade-Offs, and Barriers for Selecting Land Management Practices in Northern Ghana

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

In June and July of 2018, I conducted field work in the Bawku East and Nabdam Districts located in the Upper East region of northern Ghana. This is a semi-arid region that has been historically one of the least developed areas in the country. This regional inequality is in part related to the country’s colonial past, a growing population, low soil fertility, increasing environmental degradation, period droughts, and erratic rainfall.

Kongo, Nabdam District. Irrigated fields.

My research focuses on understanding the socio-economic and ecological drivers of land degradation in this region of Ghana as well as understanding the barriers that prevent farmers from adopting sustainable land management practices (SLM) to combat land degradation. SLM practices are one of the best ways to combat and reverse land degradation and enable farmers to maximize the economic and social benefits from the land while maintaining and enhancing the ecological functions of the land. These practices include soil fertility and crop management, soil erosion control measures, water harvesting, forest management etc.

Widnebe, Bawku East District. Farmers in rice field. Burkina Faso is located on the other side of the hills.

To get a sense of how land degradation is affecting farmers’ livelihood and the kinds of land management practices they use to prevent it, my translator and I visited six communities in these two districts. Deborah, my translator is from this region and growing up working on her parents’ farm she has a keen understanding of the social and economic drivers of land degradation and the motivations, goals and constraints that drive farmers’ decisions about how to manage their land. We used a variety of participatory approaches to first get a clear picture of how land degradation is affecting each community and second to understand the barriers that prevent farmers from adopting more extensively SLM practices. During these exchanges, Deborah was invaluable as she was able to explain clearly the purpose of our visit and elicit very specific responses to our questions. Because we spent so much time together (24/7 for six weeks) farmers could easily see that we were true collaborators and that we enjoyed working together. As a white female researcher, this close relationship with an African female researcher helped break the racial barrier and created an atmosphere of trust between the researchers and members of the community.

Dasabligo, Bawku East District. House compound surrounded by fields of maize and sorghum.

Participatory research approaches have been shown to enhance knowledge exchange between researchers and stakeholders (in this case the farmers of northern Ghana) and also to increase the likelihood that this co-produced knowledge will be incorporated into decision making. With participatory research, stakeholders fully contribute to the research process whose goal is to develop solutions to their particular problem because it is adapted to the social and ecological context and the needs of stakeholders.

Ankpaliga, Bawku East District. ELMO step 6: farmers rank (with the input from the family cat) the importance of the SLM practices they use.

To understand the specific context of farmers’ choices, trade-offs, and barriers for selecting land management practices, we used a participatory tool called ELMO (Evaluating Land Management Options) developed by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). This tool was developed in recognition of the complex factors that drive farmers’ land use decisions. ELMO is organized around three basic questions and entails 10 steps. It is technically simple to implement, with pens, cards, flip charts, ‘counters’ (such as beans or stones) and a camera (for documentation) being the only required equipment. Structured discussions and prioritization exercises shed light on farmers’ preferences for different land management practices and to investigate the cost, benefits, motivations and enabling conditions that influence the adoption or rejection of SLM. ELMO is very useful to better understand farmers’ own perceptions and explanations of the advantages, disadvantages and trade-offs associated with different land management choices as they relate to their own needs, motivations, opportunities and constraints.

Ankpaliga, Bawku East District. ELMO final step 7: farmers vote on the advantages and disadvantages of each SLM practice they use.

Groundwater in Southern Arizona: People, Perceptions, and Policies

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The fan made it difficult to hear, but the room was hot. Attendees were seated in tightly spaced rows, shoulder-to-shoulder. It was the Southeast Arizona Citizen’s Forum—a public meeting of the International Boundary and Water Commission that brings together stakeholders interested in water resources in the U.S.-Mexico border region. From my seat near the back, the rows of attendees looked like a motley assortment that together resembled a patchwork quilt—their clothing of various colors and styles—some wore suit jackets, others plaid shirts. There were cowboy boots, slacks, jeans, dress shirts, cardigans and work boots. As each person stood up to introduce themselves the diversity of stakeholders became even more apparent—representatives from U.S. Senator’s offices, state agency scientists, water utility professionals, local farmers, citizen activists, NGO employees, and concerned residents. Each raised their voice to be heard above the din of the air conditioner. They gathered to discuss water—each bringing a unique perspective.

In southern Arizona and along the border with Mexico, communities and industries are highly-dependent on groundwater. Yet, when people talk about water, they often focus on other things: “stream flows were so low this year”; “the pollution in the stream is getting worse”; “vegetation in the riparian area is suffering”; “this year’s monsoon was drier than normal”. Whether or not it is stated, all of these observed conditions can also affect groundwater, particularly shallow aquifers.

Image Source: WikiMedia Commons

In the Upper Santa Cruz watershed—a transboundary basin that encompasses the border cities of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona—water dialogues revolve around transboundary wastewater. Overflows of wastewater from Nogales, Sonora are transported via pipeline to be treated at the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant, 10 miles north of the border. Many are concerned about the pipeline’s reliability and longevity as leaks contaminating the Nogales wash have been observed for years. At last fall’s Southeast Arizona Citizen’s Forum meeting, stakeholders questioned how repairs would be made—and who would pay for them. But this surface pollution could potentially also affect shallow groundwater—the main water source in this region.

Groundwater can be closely connected to surface water. In the Upper Santa Cruz basin, shallow aquifers are recharged from streams that flow only periodically during the year—the streams are fed by episodic rainfall mostly during the monsoon. Because surface water is scarce, riparian vegetation in the Upper San Pedro watershed—east of the Upper Santa Cruz—relies on groundwater to survive. And, recent studies suggest that reduced rainfall—an expected result of climate change—will likely also diminish the amount of recharge to aquifers in this region. Yet despite these intricate physical connections, groundwater and surface water—and their quantity and water quality—are managed, and often perceived, separately.

This is due in part to the fragmented and overlapping landscape of agencies that monitor, manage and regulate water. Federal laws address aspects of surface water quality, yet groundwater is regulated by the state and only in designated Active Management Areas. Monitoring of groundwater is the purview of the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), but the Arizona Department for Environmental Quality (ADEQ) takes the front seat on addressing pollution—which also affects groundwater. Thus, groundwater information is distributed across and used by multiple stakeholders.

In recent years, global efforts have shed light on the importance of groundwater resources and the need to better manage them for sustainable, long-term use. In 2016, the Global Environmental Facility identified a “Shared Vision for Groundwater Governance 2030” consisting of five principles that specifically include the need to integrate groundwater management with surface water management. The effort also identified the need for better information about groundwater resources and more effective use of scientific information groundwater planning and policies.

In southern Arizona, the state’s groundwater regulations go a long way to address these challenges, yet the roles, responsibility and scope of work among different actors remain both fragmented and overlapping—various organizations address a limited scope of groundwater concerns, stakeholders approach issues from different perspectives, and multiple agencies collect and compile groundwater data. This research seeks to examine the threads that connect scientific information and people’s perceptions of groundwater challenges—and between science and policy—to help us see groundwater management more clearly.

Hunting for Black Gold

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

With the aid of my headlamp, I carefully check the contents of my backpack in the pre-dawn darkness.  Food, water, vials, coin envelopes...check.  I strap a shovel to the outside of my pack and swing it across my shoulders with a huff, shrugging to adjust the weight.  Two and a half gallons of water is not light, but I’ll drink most of it over the course of the next 12 hours.  And I always carry a little extra when traipsing around the Sonoran desert in summer.  I enjoy the June morning, about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, knowing the temperature will rise at least 30 degrees by midafternoon.  A warm breeze blowing across the Pinta Sands, a remote area on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, hints at the heat to come.  I sling the strap of my binoculars over my shoulder and start walking at a brisk pace so I can cover the three plus miles to the first wildlife water before sunrise.  If I’m lucky, I’ll see a pronghorn at the edge of the playa—a dried lakebed—like I did last year.

Figure 1: The Sonoran desert of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge

By pronghorn I mean Sonoran pronghorn.  Most of us are familiar with the American “antelope” roaming the Great Plains; we’ve sung about them since childhood in the classic tune “Home on the Range”.  Few are aware of the distinct subspecies specially adapted to living in the Sonoran desert.  Sonoran pronghorn are not easy to find, and they have been listed as endangered since 1967.  The U.S. range-wide survey in 2016 estimated that 228 individuals occupy 1.6 million acres—an area the size of Delaware—extending about 60 miles along the U.S./Mexico border.  As low as this number is, it is a significant increase from the count of 21 observed after a year of severe drought in 2002.  Over the next century, climate scientists predict that such droughts will occur more frequently in the Sonoran desert.  The Sonoran pronghorn’s current range lacks any naturally-occurring, perennial sources of water they are likely to visit.  Pronghorn are the fastest land mammal in North America, reaching and sustaining speeds over 55 mph, but they cannot outrun drought.  To help the Sonoran pronghorn population recover, wildlife managers have strategically built water sources and provided supplemental forage during the hot, dry summer.  Combined with captive breeding efforts, management has succeeded in reversing the downward trend in Sonoran pronghorn numbers.  These recovery efforts, however, have not been implemented without controversy.  Wilderness advocates balk at constructing wildlife waters in the designated Wilderness of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the majority of the Sonoran pronghorn’s range in the U.S.  Given the legal difficulties of conducting experiments with endangered species, wildlife managers struggle to quantify the degree to which costly recovery efforts have helped bolster the Sonoran pronghorn population.  Doing so requires accurate estimates of survival, a challenging feat given the remoteness of the desert landscape and the pronghorn’s low densities.  Fortunately, researcher partners at have devised a way to estimate survival by systematically collecting what I’ve come to know as black gold, more commonly called pronghorn scat.  Why do I call scat black gold?  Because you can learn a lot about an animal from its poop.  You can determine its unique genetic profile, diet quality, stress level,…even pregnancy status for females!

Figure 2: Two male Sonoran pronghorn, called bucks, stand vigilant towards the author

As I approach the wildlife water, I carefully scan for movement and the white and tan pattern unique to pronghorn.  The only thing standing out from the background vegetation of chain fruit cholla, creosote, and bursage is the 6-inch tall plywood rim around three-quarters of the below-ground trough, minimizing the amount of sand blown into the water source.  Without the rim, the trough would be impossible to see from a distance.  I spend an hour carefully searching the surrounding area for pronghorn scat and tracks without any luck.  The sun rises higher in the sky and sweat starts to bead on my forehead.  While I shovel muck out of the trough, a couple hundred bees maneuver around me to access the valuable water.  I try to make my movements slow and smooth to avoid being stung.  When finished with the mundane maintenance, I gather my gear and head towards a second wildlife water to continue my search for pronghorn scat.

This year, 2018, is our sixth year collecting scat for genetic identification, which will provide us with five estimates of survival.  How does one estimate survival by collecting scat and determining each sample’s genetic profile?  By using mark-recapture models.  Mark-recapture is a way to estimate survival and population size by capturing individuals, marking them, releasing them, and then performing additional captures after a given time period.  The proportion of marked individuals recaptured can be used to estimate the size of the population being sampled.  When this process is repeated for two or more years, researchers can estimate survival of individuals.  In this case, unique genetic profiles are “marks” so pronghorn can be “captured” without ever being touched.  Their scat is “captured” instead!  This helps improve the accuracy of our survival estimates while minimizing our impact on an endangered species.

The two-and-a-half-mile hike to the second wildlife water is devoid of fresh pronghorn sign.  I repeat my search efforts and maintenance work, measuring the depth of water in the trough as sweat drips down my chest and back.  The temperature must be in the 90’s by now.  The wind from a nearby dust devil provides a brief reprieve from the heat as I enjoy walking without my heavy backpack.  With no pronghorn scat in sight, however, I guzzle some water, shrug into my pack again, and start hiking towards the third and final wildlife water along the bajada.

Figure 3: The author mucking out the trough of a below-ground wildlife water

Why I am visiting wildlife waters to find pronghorn scat?  Given that Sonoran pronghorn occur at such low densities, finding fresh scat in randomly located areas would be extremely difficult.  Instead, I target areas where pronghorn are known to congregate during the hot, dry season leading up to the monsoon: wildlife waters in the bajadas.  I have already collected more than five hundred samples this June and anticipate collecting another two hundred or so before the sampling season ends.

I dart behind the nearest creosote bush when I hear the pronghorn’s warning call—a distinct “snort-wheeze”.  Two bucks are visible between the branches about seventy-five yards ahead of me, a quarter mile from the third wildlife water.  I crouch as still as possible, balancing my weighty pack with the awkward positioning of the shovel.  As I watch the pronghorn through my binoculars, one buck squats to urinate and defecate.  I carefully memorize his exact position in relation to the surrounding vegetation and rejoice that my scat collection efforts have not been in vain!  After snorting a few more times, the two pronghorn trot away.  In this sweltering 100+ degree heat, I feel sorry to have disturbed them during the hottest part of the day.  I stiffly rise to my feet and head towards the spot where I first saw the pronghorn.   Following a couple minutes of searching, I find the small pile of pellets.  I carefully put a dozen into a #1 coin envelope for genetic analysis and another dozen pellets into a vial for hormone analysis.  An hour of following pronghorn tracks and searching beneath ironwood and palo verde trees provides me with scat samples for both pronghorn in the group.  After completing the routine maintenance on the wildlife water, I spend a few minutes resting beneath the broken shade of a large ironwood.

Figure 4: The author collecting pronghorn scat for hormone analysis

With sufficiently accurate estimates of annual survival for five consecutive years, I hope to analyze the relationship between survival and climatic variables such as rainfall.  These results will allow managers to more accurately assess the extinction risk of Sonoran pronghorn for different recovery actions.  This is particularly important in light of climate change and predictions that droughts will become more severe and frequent in the southwest and that summers, the most physiologically stressful season for Sonoran pronghorn, will become hotter and longer.

Content with successfully finding scat samples that will ultimately contribute to our understanding of Sonoran pronghorn, I lace up my boots and reorganize my gear.  Now for the long, seven-and-a-half-mile slog through the heat back to camp.

Beyond the Ranchers-Versus-City Narrative of the Owens Valley Water Conflict

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The conflict over the City of Los Angeles’ extraction and export of water from California’s Owens Valley has long captivated the public and policymakers alike. However, narratives about the Owens Valley water conflict, chronicled in Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Desert and sensationalized in the movie Chinatown, have often fixated on the demise of the agricultural economy at the hands of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) in the early 20th century. Though often described as an act of theft and lawlessness, Los Angeles’ acquisition of 95% of the valley’s land and water was in fact authorized under the law and facilitated by the federal government in the name of “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.” But, over the 105 years since the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed, notions of what constitutes the greatest good – and the long run, for that matter – have shifted, opening plenty of space for contention and debate in what once seemed a simple calculus.

Figure 1: The Los Angeles Aqueduct flowing south through Owens Valley

I came to the Owens Valley to get beyond the famous ranchers-versus-city narrative, aiming to understand how conflicting interests within and outside the Owens Valley have been negotiated and reconciled over time in the context of shifting laws, policies, and environmental conditions. Coincidentally, I arrived in Owens Valley just as fresh conflict was flaring up among the ranching community in response to the LADWP cutting irrigation to ranch leases. As expected, there has been a flurry of media coverage eager to capture this ranchers-versus-city rerun. But, in the background, the debate is much more complex, with many more actors and issues at play.

Figure 2: Abandoned grain silos outside of the town of Bishop

The plight of the Owens Valley ranchers in the early 20th century is so well known it may be surprising to hear there are any left in the valley today. In 1927, the Sacramento Union newspaper published an article with the dramatic message “We, the farming communities of Owens Valley, being about to die, salute you!” However, nearly as soon as LADWP finished buying up private property, it began to lease ranch lands back, though without the water rights. Ranchers were told, in “handshake agreements,” that they would be able to manage the land as if it were their own and would be supplied with irrigation water.

Over the ensuing decades, the relationship between LADWP and the ranchers was a good one – it was understood that LADWP had the ranchers’ back and they in turn had LADWP’s. However, that began to change around 2015, when LADWP began limiting irrigation deliveries and changing the terms of the lease agreements. Then, in the spring of 2018, LADWP announced that it would no longer be delivering irrigation water to about 6,000 acres of land in Mono County that they have leased to ranchers for more than 70 years.

Figure 3: Cattle on a small ranch lease in the Bishop area

Confronted by climate change impacts and court mandates that commit more water to environmental mitigation projects, LADWP is zeroing in on any “inefficiencies” in the system. Flood irrigation on ranch leases has become an easy target. LADWP ratepayers have argued that providing water to the ranchers is taking a public asset, giving it to a private interest, and then passing the bill to Los Angeles ratepayers. Because LADWP is a municipal utility and, thus, a public entity, it must manage its land and water in the public interest. Lucky for the ranchers, today there are many members of the public arguing that the ranch leases are serving the public interest.  

For generations, flood irrigation has sustained lush meadows and wetlands that few are willing to see dry up. In fact, if you were to have walked blindly into the recent public scoping meeting hosted by LADWP and listened to the public comments, you may well have missed the fact that the issue involved ranchers at all. Climate change, ecological mitigation, habitat protection, recreational and aesthetic values, tribal sovereignty, and environmental justice: the range of concerns demonstrate that what is at stake is much more than a simple weighing of urban and agricultural water needs.

Figure 4: View across the flood-irrigated meadows of one of the ranch leases now affected by the irrigation cut-off

Environmental groups have raised the alarm about the need to protect certain meadow areas that provide critical habitat for the bi-state sage grouse. Residents of neighboring towns are concerned that a drier landscape will increase risk of wildfire. Tourism and recreation groups are worried about impacts to the scenic beauty of the area for travelers along Highway 395. Mono County representatives cite the potential impacts to the local economy, which is almost entirely based in agriculture and tourism.

Many locals also raise concerns about the loss of the cultural heritage of the area, standing behind the multi-generational ranch families as the “traditional stewards of the land.” Representatives from the local Paiute (Nüümü) tribes are quick to point out that the cultural heritage of the area stretches far beyond ranching. For millennia, the Nüümü have stewarded this land they call Payahüünadü, ‘the land of flowing water,’ a vast territory stretching roughly from Mono Lake to Owens Lake. Though the tribes are now confined to small reservations, they demand formal government-to-government consultation with the City of Los Angeles about decisions impacting their ancestral territory. As one Nüümü woman put it, "the plants, the animals, we are their relatives and we need to speak for them.”

Figure 5: Ranchers and tribal representatives discuss the potential impacts to leased lands

LADWP officials argue that, by cutting irrigation, they would be returning the area to its “natural state.” However, stakeholders have been quick to point out the ambiguity and irony of that statement, given LADWP’s decades of surface water diversions and groundwater pumping that have severely impacted natural meadows. Some see the irrigated meadows as a form of mitigation for the native meadows that were inundated under Crowley Lake reservoir. Indigenous activists object to notions of a “natural state” that fail to acknowledge their presence on the land since time immemorial. Long before ranchers began irrigating the valley, the Nüümü were spreading water across the land. But these traditional irrigation practices were displaced, first by settlers and then by LADWP. Today, many Nüümü oppose cutting irrigation to the ranch leases so that water may continue to be spread in Payahüünadü.

Figure 6: View over Crowley Lake. Green pastureland around its edge is another area now subject to the irrigation cut

Mono County and several environmental groups have now sued LADWP for “dewatering” the ranch leases without first conducting an environmental impact assessment, alleging a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). With that action, nearly every bit of LADWP land in the Eastern Sierra is now subject to some sort of litigation or settlement agreement conditioning the terms of its management. To the north, in the Mono basin, LADWP’s diversions of water were curtailed by a 1983 court decision maintaining the water levels needed to protect Mono Lake ecosystems. To the south, in Inyo County, the terms of the 1991 Inyo-L.A. Long Term Water Agreement require monitoring and mitigation of the impacts of groundwater pumping as well as maintaining irrigation water for ranch leases. At the terminus of the Owens River basin at Owens Lake, dry since the 1920s, LADWP was forced by court order to mitigate dust emissions, costing billions. Similar forms of litigation, mitigation, and monitoring are likely in store for the ranch leases in Mono County.

Figure 7: Sprinkler system used to control dust with shallow flooding and managed vegetation on Owens Lake

Ultimately, these ongoing conflicts in recent decades have demonstrated that the “greatest good” is no longer as simple as “the greatest number.” LADWP now reckons with decades of environmental regulations and with environmental and indigenous movements advocating for the public interest in environmental protection. Now, with climate change pressures, there is increasing emphasis put on the last, and often forgotten, part of the philosophy of “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long term.” As indigenous leaders so often point out, “the long term” can no longer be seen as the next decade or the next 50 years but rather the next seven generations and beyond.

This is the new story of Owens Valley, Payahüünadü, and, in many ways, the West. Far more complex than a ranchers-versus-city battle, it is a story of persistent struggle to reconcile diverse and conflicting interests in water amidst social, political, and environmental change. It is about the delicate balancing act required to meet the needs of the communities at either end of the aqueduct, as well as the needs of the environment, so that all may continue to thrive for many generations to come.

Figure 8: Fall colors along Bishop Creek Canal