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Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Water war brewing in the Eastern Sierras

By Bill Becher
Special to ESPNoutdoors.com — Jan. 7, 2005

Eastern Sierra Mountains
Mas Okui of Woodland Hills, Calif. fishes at Hot Creek. Anglers fear for the heath of this popular fishery.
MAMMOTH LAKES — "In California, whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting over," said Mark Twain.

In the Eastern Sierra, they're ready to rumble.

The fight is over whether water from Mammoth Creek should be irrigating golf courses and flushing toilets in new $1 million condominiums in the ski town or be left in streams to sustain wild trout.

Jim Edmondson of CalTrout, an anglers' conservation group that works to protect and restore the state's wild trout and steelhead, said this amounts to a water grab that will seriously hurt the area's prime fishing streams.

CalTrout is not new to controversy in the Eastern Sierra. The organization participated in a lawsuit that forced the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to return water to Mono Lake and its tributaries.

CalTrout has filed a 453-page petition with the state's Water Resources Control Board asking the agency to complete a long-promised environmental impact report by the Mammoth Community Water District to determine whether too much water is being pumped from Mammoth Creek and if that is harming the downstream fisheries at Hot Creek and the Owens River.

Only a few miles long, Hot Creek is legendary among fly fishers. It runs from the Hot Creek Fish Hatchery and is joined by Mammoth Creek and then meanders though meadows before flowing through a small canyon.

With thousands of fat trout and a stunning backdrop — the snowy peaks of the White Mountains to the east and the Sierra to the west — catch-and- release-only Hot Creek is known as one of the nation's best fly-fishing streams. But anglers say that lower flows from Mammoth Creek, especially in the spring, have caused Hot Creek to become sluggish and choked with vegetation.

Brown trout
Anglers say that wild brown trout will suffer if too much water is taken out of Mammoth Creek.
Edmondson insists his group would prefer to negotiate a settlement. But the organization is serious about protecting trout fisheries that are among the most productive and important in California. Edmondson said the group filed the petition, which took a year to research and produce, in response to the decline in wild fish populations in Mammoth Creek and Hot Creek and fish kills in the Owens River.

"We're trying to create a sense of urgency and diligence," Edmondson said.

Mammoth Community Water District's original permit to withdraw water from Mammoth Creek required minimum in-stream flows to protect fish. To meet rising demand, especially in summer months, the district went to a local court in 1996 and got temporary permission to take more water. As part of the process to permanently resolve the issue, the district prepared a draft EIR in 2000. That report was heavily criticized by the California Department of Fish and Game, which said that it didn't have enough information to determine the impacts on fish and that the methods used to study stream flows were flawed.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power reached similar conclusions and asked that the district consider the downstream effects on trout, pointing out that higher water temperatures because of reduced flows could cause fish kills in the Owens River.

Garry Sisson, general manager of the Mammoth Community Water District, said the environmental study has been slowed by uncertainty over the involvement of the U.S. Forest Service. He said the district's consultants have worked to resolve some of the issues raised by the report's critics, but that a final EIR is not likely until 2006.

Eastern Sierra Mountains
Bill Nichols, manager of Hot Creek Ranch, which caters to anglers, is worried that water taken upstream by the Mammoth Community Water District will damage this fishery.
CalTrout officials say the State Water Board should take over the EIR process because the Mammoth water district cannot be impartial. CalTrout is asking the state board to schedule hearings to determine the impact on fisheries of the water being taken from Mammoth Creek.

The group also wants Mammoth to be required to take water conservation measures, such as using reclaimed water to irrigate golf courses and for the Water Board to determine if the water being taken by Mammoth actually belongs to Los Angeles, which has senior water rights in the area.

Sisson said the district wanted to use reclaimed water for golf course irrigation but could not obtain permission from water quality regulators. The district is looking at reclaimed water as a new source and is trying to resolve quality issues with regulators.

The district has been studying fish populations in Mammoth Creek.

"We feel confident that the health of Mammoth Creek is in good shape," said Sisson, who added that he could understand the concerns about Hot Creek.

"We need to focus on Hot Creek and see what kind of assistance we can provide," Sisson said.

Sisson said the water district hopes to meet with CalTrout representatives to see if the issues can be resolved by negotiation without going to court.