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Policy notes from the Mono Lake Newsletter

April 30th, 2019 by Mono Lake Committee Staff

Caltrans Lee Vining US 395 Rehab Project

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is developing plans for a new highway project along five miles of Highway 395.

Plans for the Caltrans Rehab Project include significant amenities for the town of Lee Vining, such as upgrading sidewalks and drainage, replacing pavement, and improving safety. Photo by Bartshe Miller.

The project area is between Highway 120 west and Cemetery Road past The Mono Inn (see Fall 2018 Mono Lake Newsletter). The Lee Vining US 395 Rehab Project will replace pavement throughout the project area, improve sidewalks and curbs in Lee Vining, upgrade drainage systems, and improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

While the in-town section allows for significant transportation amenities on which the community has provided initial input, Caltrans has been less clear regarding design possibilities for the section along the west shore of Mono Lake. The Mono Lake Committee is reaching out to Caltrans before the completion of the Project Initiation Document in anticipation that the success of the recent Rockfall Project can be replicated. The Rockfall Project (see following note) achieved transportation goals and protected environmental and scenic values along the west shore of Mono Lake, and the Committee will propose a similar collaborative process for the Rehab Project. While the project is several years away from the construction phase, the critical planning and environmental CEQA process begins after the completion of the Project Initiation Document.

Rockfall revegetation on track for success

Three years into the five year project, results from the Plant Establishment Program (PEP) for the Caltrans Lee Vining Rockfall Safety Project are encouraging. The Committee and Caltrans negotiated for the PEP early on in the project planning process to ensure successful revegetation of the six Rockfall Project slopes adjacent to Highway 395 along Mono Lake (see Summer 2018 Mono Lake Newsletter).

The PEP has been successful in reducing erosion, meeting native plant cover criteria, and providing slope stability. Specific criteria for species diversity, plant density, and survival rates are monitored annually and remedial action is required if pre-established targets are not met. Invasive plant species such as cheatgrass and sweet clover, while present, are at manageable levels and less pervasive than anticipated. In 2018 only one area in Slope 1 was found to be low in native plant density, species diversity, and mulch cover. Caltrans is coordinating with the PEP project contractor to reapply native seed mix and add an additional layer of pine needle mulch to remedy this deficiency.

As part of the Rockfall Project Plant Establishment Program, large bags of pine needle mulch were delivered by helicopter to the slopes in late 2017 to aid in revegetation. Photo by Geoff McQuilkin.

Caltrans Conway Ranch Shoulder Widening Project

Late last year, Caltrans introduced three shoulder widening projects in Mono County, one of which is in the Mono Basin at the bottom of Conway Summit. The Conway Ranch Shoulder Widening Project proposes to widen shoulders along Highway 395 from Highway 167 north to the bottom of the Conway grade adjacent to Conway Ranch, as well as install rumble strips, correct a substandard curve, and lengthen the tire chain installation area. At times this stretch of highway experiences high wind speeds, which makes it more prone to traffic accidents. Widening the shoulders will provide additional room to maneuver when wind events occur.

The Committee has already submitted preliminary scoping comments focused on the revegetation of cut and fill slopes. Caltrans and the Committee have learned a lot from revegetating the Rockfall Project, and we are encouraging Caltrans to model future revegetation plans on these successfully proven methods.

The Committee plans to meet with Caltrans on-site this summer to inform the draft environmental document scheduled for release in January 2020. Project construction is scheduled for spring of 2023.

Forest Plan objection process nears completion

The Inyo National Forest Land Management Plan development process is nearing resolution. A final procedural phase of the process is the objection phase, during which interested parties who previously filed comments on the plan could object to specific findings of the draft final decision. The Committee has been involved in the public plan revision process since 2014 with an eye on the parts of the plan that affect the Mono Basin.

Unfortunately, the plan draft record of decision issued in August 2018 did not include a number of Mono Basin stream segments that meet Wild & Scenic River eligibility. The Committee made the case for Wild & Scenic River eligibility for portions of Rush, Lee Vining, Mill, Parker, and Walker creeks. These creeks have made, and continue to make, great restoration progress and possess “Outstandingly Remarkable Values” (ORV) under US Forest Service criteria that allow for eligibility.

The Committee advocated for additional Mono Basin stream segments to be included as eligible for Wild & Scenic River designation in the revised Forest Land Management Plan. Photo by Greg Reis.

The objection meetings with US Forest Service staff in mid-February were the final opportunity for interested parties to provide input on topics that were formally objected to in the draft plan. Committee staff presented images and details demonstrating how Mono Basin creek segments met ORV criteria. After the presentation, reviewing US Forest Service staff from the Inyo and Region Five indicated they were optimistic about including additional stream segments for eligibility. The outcome of the objections and a final record of decision are expected this year.

Mill Creek return ditch improved

Southern California Edison (SCE) is continuing to look for creative solutions to comply with an 11-yearold hydropower settlement, namely returning water to Mill Creek in accordance with long-established and adjudicated water rights. The Mill Creek return ditch, which returns water back to Mill Creek after it passes through the hydropower plant, is a critical infrastructure component. SCE tested the return ditch in 2017 and then again last year (see Winter & Spring 2018 Mono Lake Newsletter). Both test flows and associated monitoring periods have revealed opportunities for structural improvements, which SCE has made, increasing the capacity and reliability of the system.

The Mill Creek return ditch is a critical piece of infrastructure used to return water back to Mill Creek after it passes through SCE’s hydropower plant. Photo by Robbie Di Paolo.

SCE is planning to use the return ditch again this year in a good-faith effort to return at least a portion of the water rights associated with Mill  Creek. However, the current capacity of the ditch still falls well below the size needed to return all of Mill’s legal allocation of water. The Committee and five other agencies and stakeholders, including SCE, are looking at alternatives to make up the shortfall and begin Mill Creek’s long-awaited restoration process.

Fixing the pipes at DeChambeau Ponds

The DeChambeau Ponds support migratory waterfowl and wildlife on the north shore of Mono Lake. A historic artesian well, which is a relic of an unsuccessful oil drilling effort, provides year-round warm water—but the piping system has failed in recent years. Committee staff recently visited the site with local residents, Friends of the Inyo, and the US Forest Service to explore possible fixes to benefit the ponds.

Community members meet at DeChambeau Ponds. Photo by Bartshe Miller.

Preserving a historic house

The Committee has worked for many years to protect a land parcel on Mono Lake’s west shore from proposed extensive development (see Fall 2007 Mono Lake Newsletter). The solution is the transfer of the property to the Inyo National Forest for public ownership, a long process that will soon be complete. But what will happen to the small house that currently sits on the site? Its long history dates back many decades, making it a home of local significance, although not an officially designated historical building.

The Committee is helping our friends at the Mono Basin Historical Society with a plan to relocate the building to Hess Park in Lee Vining to expand the existing museum. In December we connected Mammoth Mountain, which currently owns the property, with the Historical Society to develop a plan to move the house. It’s not often that you see a building driving down Highway 395, but by summer that may be exactly what happens.

During the government shutdown, the South Tufa area remained open and Committee staff continued to lead 1:00PM weekend interpretive tours for visitors, on skis if necessary. Photo courtesy of Izzy Patterson.

Government shutdown

The partial federal government shutdown from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019 was the longest in US history, affecting many dedicated federal employees and their families. In the Eastern Sierra, the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service were all affected, and visitor centers were shuttered. The Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center was already closed for the winter, but South Tufa remained open and accessible throughout the shutdown. Thanks to Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve staff, Committee volunteers, and a mindful public, the South Tufa bathrooms were kept clean and trash cans emptied.

Regular business between the public and the Inyo National Forest was halted during the shutdown. The Inyo National Forest Land Management Plan objection meetings were canceled (later rescheduled), annual special-use permitting was suspended, and seasonal federal employee hiring delayed. While the visiting public was not severely inconvenienced in the region due to the timing, the shutdown did create a number of headaches and delays in federal government function that will take time to fully overcome.

Long Valley court case moves ahead

As detailed in the Fall 2018 Mono Lake Newsletter, Mono County filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) regarding DWP’s abrupt dewatering of over 6,000 acres of land in Long Valley. The County is reasonably asking for an environmental analysis and public decision-making process before decades-old land management practices are abandoned. DWP promptly requested that the lawsuit be dismissed and the Alameda Superior Court overruled DWP’s request in late February; the case will proceed.

DWP cut off irrigation to the lands last year, apparently to increase supply to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and concerns include impacts to important Greater Sage-Grouse habitat, fire risk, and the lack of communication with local leaders. The Committee has asked whether DWP has more unannounced plans throughout the Eastern Sierra, including the Mono Basin, to export additional water in the Los Angeles Aqueduct. DWP is now working on an Environmental Impact Report for the dewatering; no completion date is available at this time.

Judge Stan Eller retires

After a long and widely lauded career, Mono County Superior Court Judge Stan Eller retired at the end of 2018. At a ceremonial court proceeding in November, speakers emphasized Eller’s fairness, integrity, and compassion for all who appeared before him in court, with one recalling a defendant just sentenced to years in state prison who thanked Eller for treating him with dignity.

The lands and waters of Mono County, and Rush Creek specifically, are the better for Eller’s service to the public. Eller was assistant district attorney prior to becoming a judge, and he made the fateful decision to enforce Fish & Game codes for the first time to stop DWP from shutting off water in Rush Creek after the wet 1984 winter. Eller’s bold move led to a minimum flow injunction and started a cascade of legal events that today are the foundation of the restoration flow requirements and habitat restoration programs on Rush, Lee Vining, Parker, and Walker creeks. For these reasons the Committee awarded Eller the Defender of the Trust Award in 2001.

In November 1984 at a demonstration organized by the Mono Lake Committee, assistant district attorney Stan Eller speaks to the press about the return of water to Rush Creek. Photo courtesy of Larry Ford, from Storm Over Mono.

Committee Executive Director Geoff McQuilkin was honored to recount these events at the retirement proceedings along with local attorney Tim Sanford, who was “in the room” in 1984, and Department of Fish & Wildlife representative Steve Parmenter, who explained how the precedent came to be applied in the Owens Gorge as well.

Eller looks forward to remaining in Mono County with his family, having more time to ski and explore, and, we hope, new opportunities to fish the recovering pools and meanders of Rush Creek.

This post was also published as an article in the Winter & Spring 2019 Mono Lake Newsletter (pages 8–11).

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