Track 9: Daris Moxley, Bishop rancher

Daris Moxley and her husband operate a 200-acre LADWP ranching lease in Bishop that has been managed by her family since the early 1930s. Today, she irrigates only 99 acres, leaving the rest dry as prescribed in her current lease agreement. Over the past years she has seen the irrigated portion of her property decline drastically due to irrigation cutbacks which are set by the department. Moxley has been one of the few voices from the within the local ranching community to express her concern over LADWP’s current pasture management policies, which she feels do not provide adequate irrigation for healthy pasture. Although many Owens Valley ranchers are supportive of their landlord, some refrain from any public criticism out fear of provocation or possibly losing their lease entirely.

During our interview Moxley recalled, “When we’d dig post holes we’d go down about five feet and it would be scramble to get your post in before the hole would fill up with water. Now, this spring, my husband and I were digging a hole and we were down to ten feet and we barely had moist soil—we never got a drop of water!  This was within four feet of a running ditch.” Moxley is greatly concerned over LADWP’s pumping overdrafts and suspects that, if continued, will lower the area’s groundwater table beyond recovery.

Historically, ranching continued to operate in the Owens Valley even though 211,665 acres had been purchased by the city by the early 1930s.[1] Soon after, LADWP began leasing much of this original acreage back to the same ranch owners but through short-term, five-year lease contracts. The lease agreement stated that it could be cancelled without prior notification if additional water was needed during a drought period or if annual runoff was insufficient for city and any in-valley irrigation uses. Property improvements, construction of out buildings or repairs, were and continue to be the financial responsibility of the lessee.

Significant changes have taken place within the Owens Valley’s agrarian landscape over the last 100 years; by 1920, 75,000 acres were still being irrigated as pasture and by 1960, approximately only 30,000 acres remained. By 2002, less than a 12,000 acres were still being irrigated for ranching purposes.[2] As of 2006, only fifty ranch LADWP lease agreements remained in Owens Valley with ten in Mono County.

Lessees are charged with monitoring and maintaining their leases with the goal to “provide a reliable high quality water supply to Los Angeles.” This arrangement allows the department to concentrate on its water gathering activities rather than land maintenance and other associated costs. Irrigated pasture helps to recharge the groundwater table—which LADWP eventually pumps for export. Lease renewals are not subject to competitive bidding once the five-year period is up and are generally renewed to the existing lessee. Lessees are required to keep 75% of their lands open to the public for select recreational activities, significantly contributing to the valley’s appeal as a undeveloped, open space region. Lessees must have an approved grazing management plan and must maintain their lease under certain requirements such as the 1981-82 baseline standards for vegetation management as stated in the Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA).[3] The LTWA requires that groundwater pumping be managed to avoid significant impacts while at the same time providing a consistent water supply for Los Angeles.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the maximum long-term average groundwater pumping volume consistent with goals stated in the LTWA to ensure environmental protection requirements throughout the valley is 70,000 acre-feet per year. LADWP reported in 2006 that its pumping averaged 94,809 acre-feet per year—far above the maximum suggested.[4] Many environmentalists have stated that prior overdrafts during the 1970s into the late 1980s have already significantly degraded groundwater-dependent vegetation and have led to increased desertification of the region.

[1] Greg James, “Changing Perspectives on Groundwater Management: The Owens Valley (2002),” Inyo County Water Department website. Last accessed 9/8/12.
[2] Ibid.
[3] See LTWA: Section A. Vegetation Management.
[4] See the Owens Valley Committee Groundwater brochure at:

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