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Big Pine Paiute Tribe Pressures LADWP Into Fixing Broken Pipeline

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power agrees to fix water pipeline on Big Pine Paiute Reservation after tribe makes case for damages.

LOS ANGELES—The Big Pine Paiute Tribe won an important battle last week in its five-year struggle with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to repair a broken pipeline that has cost the tribe half its irrigation water during a deep drought. Failure to repair the pipeline resulted in losses of more than $1.26 million in irrigation water in 2015 and 2016, according to data supplied by LADWP.

Tired of being ignored, last week Chairwoman Shannon Romero and a delegation of Paiute elders, youth and community members made a 500-mile round trip to Los Angeles to demand action during the March 21 meeting of the LA Department of Water and Power Commission.

“The Big Pine Paiute Tribe is being placed in a state of emergency,” Romero told the commissioners. “The lack of irrigation water since 2012 has put additional strain on the tribe’s aging infrastructure, and our citizens must now utilize domestic water to make up for the lack of irrigation water. The pipe is owned by LADWP, it’s on their land, and the language in the law is clear that it’s their responsibility to repair it. LADWP has stalled on repairs, and is now trying to manipulate the Tribe into unfair terms to diminish our water rights in order to receive repairs.”


With posters, a local drum group, and dozens of supporters gathered outside LADWP headquarters, nearly 40 Paiute citizens were among those testifying before the commission. Grandmothers, tribal officials and children told how they watched trees, shrubs, vegetable gardens, alfalfa fields, and traditional foods and medicines wither away while water gushed from the broken pipe.

“We are simply asking LADWP to fix the pipe on their land to deliver the tribe’s share of water per the 1939 Land Exchange Agreement,” said Romero. “The tribe has in good faith attempted to resolve this issue and has been met with red tape and negotiation tactics that threaten our rights. We are now taking a public stand because this treatment of our people can no longer be tolerated.”

Romero said the elders, youth and families on the Big Pine reservation are continuing cultural traditions of gardening, harvesting and preparing foods that promote healthier lifestyles in order to reduce diabetes and other diseases. For Paiute people, Paya (water) is life, and tribal citizens are questioning why their water is being withheld and given to others.

Big Pine Paiute tribal member Margaret Romero points to dying vegetation.

Big Pine Paiute member Margaret Romero points to dying vegetation.

“These are the traditional homelands of our Paiute people in the Sierra Nevada,” she said. “For countless generations, we have farmed and cultivated this valley through the use of irrigation water. In fact, it was our Paiute people who created the first irrigation system in the valley to feed our people, crops and livestock. This agreement was put in place to protect the sovereignty of our people and our resources. We are being deprived of our water rights and are being held hostage until we agree to LADWP's terms to fix a broken pipeline on their land.”

Jesse Archer, director of the Big Pine Paiute Economic Development Corporation, said the loss in water undermines the tribe’s efforts toward self-sufficiency.

“LADWP’s refusal to fulfill their legal obligations would essentially halt any economic development projects we currently have, including a travel plaza and food sovereignty and agriculture projects, because it all depends on the delivery of our water,” Archer said. ”This is an outright attack on our ability to exercise our economic sovereignty.”

LADWP Commissioner Christina Noonan was so moved by the Big Pine Paiute's water plight that she offered to pay for the pipeline repair out of her own pocket.

LADWP Commissioner Christina Noonan was so moved by the Big Pine Paiute's water plight that she offered to pay for the pipeline repair out of her own pocket.

Commissioner Writes a Check

Following testimony during public comments, Department of Water and Power Commissioner Christina Noonan surprised everyone by offering to write a personal check to cover repair costs. The amount of Noonan's check wasn't disclosed, but repair costs have been estimated to be about $250,000.

A statement released by LADWP said Commissioner Noonan “was so moved by the heartfelt stories and concerns for the welfare of the tribal members that she offered to personally cover the cost of the pipe repair in order to make water available this irrigation season.

“As a long-time representative of the City of Los Angeles on the LA-Inyo Standing committee, I understand both sides of the issues, and I am concerned that poor communications between the parties is prohibiting much needed action, so I am ready to resolve this today,” she said.

After the meeting, LADWP General Manager David Wright directed staff to take immediate steps to fix the failing pipeline without using the commissioner’s generous donation.

“Both the LADWP and the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley are concerned that the pipeline be repaired as quickly as possible to prevent another year of major losses due to leakage,” Wright said. “While LADWP had already previously offered to pay to fix the pipe as part of a mutual agreement, it is clear that we cannot wait to resolve broader issues surrounding future responsibilities quickly enough. In the spirit of cooperation, we will expedite the repair or replacement of the failing portions of the irrigation pipe at our own cost, as we had originally offered. We will continue discussions with the tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs regarding the underlying ownership, maintenance responsibilities and other issues at a future time.”

Romero offered sincere thanks to Noonan and to the many people who supported the tribe’s efforts to resolve the water crisis.

“The day was an amazing show of solidarity with people uniting to demand that LADWP do the right thing. The letters, prayers, public statements and words of encouragement were heard by the commissioners,” Romero said. “I’m happy to report that the next day, March 22, the tribe was informed that LADWP will fix the pipe within the next six weeks, so that our community will receive irrigation water in time for the 2017 growing season.”

Paya Is Life

As they wait, vigilance is needed to ensure LADWP carries out the pipe replacement in a timely manner, and ongoing consultation is needed to resolve long-term water rights issues, Romero said.

“Tribes in Owens Valley continue to struggle with establishing a meaningful working relationship with LADWP,” she said. “The Big Pine Paiute Tribe has unmet consultation needs and unresolved water rights issues. It concerns us that commitments critical to life and the future of Owens Valley tribes—which were spelled out in the 1939 land exchange agreement between the City of Los Angeles and United States of America—may no longer be a priority for LADWP.

“The Big Pine reservation is adversely affected by ongoing impacts due to LADWP’s water gathering activities, including the excessive amount of groundwater pumping from the Big Pine area, and LADWP’s apparent apathy toward fulfilling decades-old mitigation obligations. The Tribe is committed to continuing in its efforts to work with LADWP leaders to develop ways to move forward cooperatively and resolve problems in a streamlined, non-confrontational manner.”

Reflecting on this week’s win, the Big Pine Paiute Tribe said it hopes that LADWP, and Los Angeles in general, see that tribal nations stand together to protect water and the environment. In September 2016, the City of Los Angeles issued a resolution in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe recognizing "the rights of Native American Tribal Nations to protect their sovereign resources."

“We’re asking the Mayor, the City, and the Board of Commissioners to please honor that resolution and continue standing in solidarity with Indian Nations to protect sacred water and the rights of tribal nations,” Romero said. “It’s the right thing to do.”