History of the Mono Lake Committee
It all started in 1974, when David Gaines became acquainted with Mono Lake during an inventory of the natural areas of Mono County. In 1975, when he was a teaching assistant at Stanford University, he sparked an interest in Mono Lake among the students. Along with undergraduate students from UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, and Earlham College, David earned a grant from the National Science Fountation. These students used this grant to conduct the first comprehensive ecological study of Mono Lake, and in June 1977 the UC Davis Institute of Ecology published their report, An Ecological Study of Mono Lake, California.
This report drew attention to the potentially catastrophic ecological impacts of Mono Lake's falling level, which was due to diversions of water from its tributary streams by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP). These diversions began in 1941 and caused the lake to lose half of its volume and double in salinity by 1982. They also caused Negit Island, an important rookery for California Gulls, to become connected to the mainland, allowing predators access to the nesting birds.
The student who edited this report, David Winkler, walked across the newly-formed landbridge to Negit Island in November 1977, and felt compelled to do something before the next gull breeding season. He enlisted the help of David Gaines, who wrote the introduction to the report, and Sally Judy, another UC Davis student.
They approached the Sierra Club's Mono Lake Task Force, Friends of the Earth, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. All were willing to provide support, but none were willing to lead the effort to save Mono Lake.
David Gaines then appealed to the National Audubon Society's Santa Monica chapter, and in March 1978 he formed the Mono Lake Committee (Committee) as a project of the Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society. The Committee collected donations through the Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society while it was incorporating.
In early 1979, the National Audubon Society chose Mono Lake as a high priority campaign, but since it was seen as a regional issue, required that most of the money for the campaign be raised by the California chapters.
David Winkler chose to pursue a doctorate degree, which left David Gaines and Sally in charge of the Committee. David and Sally traveled around the state showing a slide show on Mono Lake to schools, conservation groups, legislators, and anyone who would listen. They decided on a three-part plan of action: legal, legislative, and educational. They also decided to ask for exactly what they wanted, instead of asking for more and then compromising down to the true goal. In 1979, a Lee Vining storefront was acquired for an office. The Mono Lake Committee Information Center & Bookstore opened at this location on Memorial Day weekend in 1979. In order to attract more visitors, the Information Center also functioned as the Lee Vining Chamber of Commerce.
David and Sally married and had two children. In 1988, David Gaines died in an automobile accident near Mono Lake.
THE COMMITTEE'S MISSION
The Summer 1978 Mono Lake Newsletter stated, "The Mono Lake Committee is a nonprofit citizen's group dedicated to the preservation of the scenic and wildlife values of Mono Lake, California." By the fall newsletter, the purpose broadened, and was "to preserve the scenic, wildlife, and scientific values of Mono and other Great Basin lakes by limiting water diversions to levels that are not environmentally destructive, to further public interest in the natural history and preservation of these lakes, and to facilitate relevant research."
Soon, the focus returned to Mono Lake, and for the first half of its history the mission remained as follows: "a non-profit citizens' group dedicated to saving Mono Lake from the excessive diversion of water from its tributary streams. We seek a solution that will meet the real water needs of Los Angeles and leave our children a living, healthy, and beautiful lake."
After succeeding in doing this with the 1994 California State Water Resources Control Board's Decision 1631, the mission evolved once again, and remains as follows today: "a non-profit citizens' group dedicated to protecting and restoring the Mono Basin ecosystem, educating the public about Mono Lake and the impacts on the environment of excessive water use, and promoting cooperative solutions that protect Mono Lake and meet real water needs without transferring environmental problems to other areas."
In 1979, the Mono Lake Committee and the National Audubon Society argued in the Mono County Superior Court that water diversions to Los Angeles did not comply with the Public Trust Doctrine. This legal doctrine, which came to California law from ancient Roman codes, states that the government has a duty to protect navigable bodies of water for the use and benefit of all people. In a 1983 precedent-setting decision, the California Supreme Court agreed with the Committee, ruling that the state has an obligation to protect places such as Mono Lake, "as far as feasible," even if this means a reconsideration of past water allocation decisions.
In 1984, California Trout, the Committee, and the National Audubon Society brought suit against the City of Los Angeles, charging that their water diversions did not comply with California Department of Fish & Wildlife codes. These codes require that enough water always be allowed to flow below a dam to keep fisheries in good condition. Eventually, the Public Trust suit and the Fish & Game suits were combined into one proceeding before the State Water Resources Control Board, the agency which allocates water in California.
In 1994 the State Water Board issued Decision 1631, which set minimum flows for the streams, set limits on water exports based on the level of Mono Lake—designed to raise and stabilize the lake at a level 20 feet above its lowest level—and ordered DWP to restore the streams and waterfowl habitat.
As a result of the lobbying efforts of the Mono Lake Committee and others, the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, through legislation sponsored by State Senator John R. Garamendi, was created in 1981, and in 1984 the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area was created in legislation authored by Congressman Richard Lehman. These two designations brought resources, facilities, and attention to the Mono Basin. Both the State Reserve and the Scenic Area offer educational programs and visitor services in the area, and both became involved as friends of the court in litigation to protect Mono Lake. Also as a result of efforts by the Committee, Mono Lake has an international designation as a site in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.
Water Replacement Supplies
The Mono Lake Committee realized that the protection of Mono Lake required securing adequate, environmentally sound replacement water supplies for Los Angeles. Its goal was to help the city meet its real water needs without increasing pressure on other sensitive resources such as the San Francisco Bay-Delta and Colorado River. The Committee lobbied throughout the 1980s for both state and federal legislation which would create funding to help Los Angeles develop water recycling facilities and pay for water conservation programs. Conservation and recycling in Los Angeles help the city to become more drought tolerant, reduce the amount of pollution which is created by waste water, and create more water annually than was ever diverted from the Mono Basin. Two bills, AB444 sponsored by Assemblyman Phil Isenberg, and HR429 sponsored by Congressman George Miller, were passed to help fund such projects.
The Committee continues its work to promote water conservation and water recycling policies and programs in Los Angeles and throughout California. The Committee is actively involved in securing funding and support for water conservation and recycling projects in Southern California, was one of the negotiators of the state's Best Management Practices Agreement, serves on the steering committee for the California Urban Water Conservation Council, and is involved with DWP's Recycled Water Advisory Group.
Since 1990, the Mono Lake Committee has been involved with restoring the damaged Mono Basin streams. The Committee monitors and assists in implementation of the State Water Board's stream and waterfowl habitat restoration orders. The Committee also maintains a web-based clearinghouse of up-to-date and historical information on the Mono Basin and the restoration of the area.
To attract attention to Mono Lake's plight and illustrate the beauty and importance of the lake's ecosystem, the Mono Lake Committee developed a Los Angeles-to-Mono Lake Bike-A-Thon (it ended in 1995), a slide show, a Mono Lake Guidebook (out of print/under revision), a calendar, a site on the internet (monolake.org), an information center and bookstore, canoe tours, free natural history walking tours, and school programs. The Committee's Outdoor Education Center program brings inner-city youth from the Los Angeles area and elsewhere to Mono Lake to learn about this source of LA's water supply and the importance of conservation to protection of Mono Lake and natural areas statewide. This program also provides these young people with the opportunity to assist with restoration and resource management programs in the Mono Basin.
As more and more people have learned about Mono Lake, support for its protection has grown. The Committee had 2,000 members in 1980, 4,000 members by 1982, and since the mid-1990s has been 16,000 members strong. Please see the Mono Lake Newsletter for the Committee's latest accomplishments.