March 19, 2013
Los Angeles is naturally a very dry county. You wouldn’t really know this about LA, because it has tons of lakes, rivers, and lush landscapes, right? However, it all really goes back to the late 1800s, when city officials realized that Los Angeles would not be able to supply water to its constituents at the rate of its growing population. Los Angeles had been rapidly using up its water resources and city officials were desperate to find more.
Fred Eaton, the city mayor, and William Mulholland, the head of the predecessor to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), were two major players in what became a water scandal. They looked to the north-eastern part of California, namely at the Owens River and its surrounding tributaries, and strategically bought land to assume the water rights of the region (Elliot-Fisk 1995). Marc Reisner, in his book Cadillac Desert, described their political moves as “chicanery, subterfuge … and a strategy of lies.” They diverted the Owens River water and consequently created the Los Angeles Aqueduct. However, all this water still wasn’t enough. So, by 1941, city officials decided to divert water from the Owen’s River that would be supplying Mono Lake.
Mono Lake, located in Mono County, California, is at least 760,000 years old. It is a terminal lake, which means that it has no outlet of water to the ocean. In fact, in some parts of the lake, it is more than twice as salty as the ocean. Regardless, it has an extremely productive ecosystem of brine shrimp, algae, and alkali flies. It also houses a nesting habitat of a huge migratory bird population of 2 million every year. So when the Angelinos diverted four out of the five tributaries that supplied the lake, the rate of evaporation from the lake exceeded the influx of water. In 41 years, Mono lake lost over half of its water and its salt concentration doubled. The lake lost 45 feet of water depth! This is why the tufa towers are visible on the lake to this day. The brine shrimp and alkali fly populations diminished as a result of the increased salinit and they were important food sources for the migratory birds that passed through Mono Lake (Elliot-Fisk 1995). Additionally, many of the wetland and woodland areas around the lake were threatened by the decreases in runoff.
Because of the various environmental problems that slowly began to degrade Mono Lake, several citizens of Mono County formed the Mono Lake Committee (MLC) in 1978 to ensure its protection from future degradation. A year later, the committee, along with the National Audubon Society (NAS), took LADWP to court on a Public Trust Suit, stating that water diversion of the lake’s tributaries were a violation of the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient legal doctrine established since the time of Roman law that protects navigable bodies of water for the public’s benefit and use. This suit opened the way to a series of legal battles with MLC against LADWP for not only violating the Public Trust Doctrine, but several other California environmental regulations, including violations of the California Environmental Quality Act and California Fish and Game Codes. The suits brought up to the California Supreme Court required that LADWP release certain amounts of water flow to the tributaries that fed into Mono Lake and amended some of its Water Licenses. The series of suits eventually led the State Water Resources Control Board to make a landmark decision in 1994, D.1631, to amend LADWP’s water licenses to the Mono Lake tributaries because of its violations of the California Fish and Game Codes and to protect the lake’s public trust values. This decision limited how much water LADWP could divert from the lake and would hold it accountable for the restoration of the lake’s ecosystem.
Since the Water Board’s decision in 1994, Mono Lake is showing some signs of improvement that seems to resonate outside the area. For instance, LADWP and the MLC are working together for the continued restoration of the lake; the partnership between the two committees, however, still needs to develop more. In Los Angeles, the cause for less water diversion has caused for people in the city to use less water and to conserve it more. Since the Water Board’s decision in 1994, the lake’s level has slowly risen to about 10 feet higher than what it was before 1994. Although the future may seem bright, the current threat of climate change may influence how much water enters the lake in a few years. A recent study on projected changes in climate may affect the hydrology of the Owens Valley and Mono Basin watersheds which could affect how much runoff from precipitation in the Sierra Nevadas could enter the watersheds and ultimately affect how much water may be available to people in California, especially in Los Angeles, in the future. While the study shows the uncertainty on whether climate change in Mono Lake’s region will produce more or less rain and snow precipitation, what is clear is that the amount of water will certainly change and is causing people, especially state legislators, to consider the future regarding water management. Needless to say, the near future for Mono Lake is headed into the right direction, but its long-term future may change if climate change has anything to say about it.
By Sergio Avelar & Daria Sarraf
Costa-Cabral, M. (2012). snowpack and runoff response to climate change in the owens valley and mono lake watersheds. Climatic Change, 116(1), 97-109. doi: 10.1007/s10584-012-0529-y
Elliott-Fisk D. 1995. Sidebar: Mono Lake compromise: A model for conflict resolution. Calif Agr 49(6):15-16. DOI: 10.3733/ca.v049n06p15