After three consecutive drought years and the warmest winter on record, the level of Mono Lake is telling.

Photo by Rose Catron.

From South Tufa and the west shore of the lake, where most visitors travel, new expanses of alkali flat and tufa have emerged. The walk to the shoreline is now a bit longer. The infamous Mono Lake mud, which strips footwear off of unsuspecting feet, grows in extent as the water recedes. Shallow stretches below Navy Beach test the patience of paddlers as they struggle to carry, drag, and scrape their craft over sand and shoals to reach navigable water. The tufa- and alkali-studded bathtub ring above the water’s edge grows and becomes a more frequent topic of conversation among visitors in the Information Center & Bookstore—“wow, the lake has sure dropped since I last saw it.”

This past winter the wait for significant snow was insufferable. We finally rejoiced in a single storm at the end of January, but when you have nothing, something seems like a lot, even if it’s really not.

Soon after we found distraction with the XXII OlympicWinter Games in Sochi, Russia. There was not much snow there either. With the “ridiculously resilient ridge” in the west, and the crushing, cold, and snowy winter in the east, it seemed that the climate was holding an Olympic event of its own.

The medal winners

The recent paltry winter marks a new milestone in California climate—it is now the warmest on record. This earned a solid gold medal in the Average High Winter Temperature Anomaly event.

The December–February average temperature exceeded 118 years of record-keeping by 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit, the Olympic equivalent of winning gold in downhill skiing by 0.7 seconds—rarely do you eclipse the top competitors by such a margin. If you expand the scope of the winter from November–March, typically the wettest months of the year, the record continues to hold. Warm winter temperatures are a further curse to drought, accelerating early runoff, evaporation, and sublimation.

Like ice hockey for the Russians, the drought was the main event, and despite the brutally close and agonizing competition, our drought year did not medal. This winter placed fifth overall, a bit behind the big drought contenders from the 1970s, 1923–24, and 1989–1990.

In the 36-Month Drought Relay, along with fellow team members 2011–12 and 2012–13, this winter brought home the bronze. The last three years are among the driest consecutive years on record in California, placing very close behind 1928–31 and 1974–77.

Downstream results

Like many lakes and reservoirs around the state, Mono Lake is an affected bystander to California’s winter rainy season. Its level rises and falls according to Sierra Nevada snowfall and runoff—both of these a function of precipitation and temperature.

Predictably, Mono Lake has dropped in response to drought. Since April 1, 2011, Mono Lake has receded three vertical feet. Unfortunately, the lake will continue to decline through this fall, and we can expect to lose another 1–1½ feet of elevation. What does this mean for Mono Lake and water diversions to Los Angeles?

This year on April 1, Mono Lake Committee and Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) staff cooperatively measured Mono Lake’s elevation. The lake stood at 6380.7 feet above sea level. This elevation allows DWP to export up to 16,000 acre-feet (af) of water from Mono Lake’s tributary streams this year. By April 1, 2015 the level of Mono Lake is forecast to be below 6380 feet, the threshold for reducing exports to 4,500 af.

Weathering the dry

Fortunately for Mono Lake, there is a plan in place to protect the lake during the inevitable episodes of drought. Fortunately for Los Angeles, the city has adapted to past water scarcity and has reduced its per-capita water consumption despite a growing population. Thirty years ago, in 1984, during the Olympic summer games in Los Angeles, the city’s population was just over three million. Its total annual water consumption was roughly 630,000 af. In 2014, with over 800,000 additional people, estimated water use will be between 550,000 and 600,000 af. This is a double gold medal performance in efficiency and conservation.

Part of LA’s strategy has included investment in water conservation and water recycling. Today, for example, the bounty on lawns in the DWP service area is $2 per square foot. If you want to tear out your lawn for the sake of conservation and to protect places like Mono Lake and get paid for it, now is your chance.

We will be sorry to see Mono Lake drop this summer, but we know that it will eventually rise again, and with State Water Board Decision 1631 in place, there is a measured plan to respond to a fluctuating lake level based on climate variability.

The Olympics are now a memory, but weather and climate are always in motion, dynamic over time. With cautious optimism, we focus on the Pacific Ocean as westerly wind bursts, an equatorial Kelvin wave, and weakening trade winds whisper hope of an El Niño event and a winter that could make us forget about the one we just had.

This post was also published as an article in the Summer 2014 Mono Lake Newsletter.

3 Comments

  1. […] An Olympic dry: The Mono-Logue blog writes: “After three consecutive drought years and the warmest winter on record, the level of Mono Lake is telling.  From South Tufa and the west shore of the lake, where most visitors travel, new expanses of alkali flat and tufa have emerged. The walk to the shoreline is now a bit longer. The infamous Mono Lake mud, which strips footwear off of unsuspecting feet, grows in extent as the water recedes. Shallow stretches below Navy Beach test the patience of paddlers as they struggle to carry, drag, and scrape their craft over sand and shoals to reach navigable water. The tufa- and alkali-studded bathtub ring above the water’s edge grows and becomes a more frequent topic of conversation among visitors in the Information Center & Bookstore—”wow, the lake has sure dropped since I last saw it.” … ”  Continue reading from the Mono-Logue here: Olympic dry […]

  2. Very well written. I appreciated the Olympic analogy. The use of a topic everyone can understand made this article that much more readable.

  3. […] that level, LADWP can take no more than 4,500 acre-feet per year.  As of April 1, according to the Mono Lake Committee, the lake's level stood at 6,380 feet… and eight inches. If that eight-inch margin […]