This morning Mono Lake Committee staff met with Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) personnel to conduct the official annual April 1 reading of the lake level together. The consensus: Mono Lake stands at 6379.01 feet above sea level.
The lake has declined to a level at which water exports to Los Angeles are, by the terms of the State Water Board’s rules, automatically reduced by 70%. DWP will be limited to 4,500 acre-feet of water export, a lake-protecting restriction that no one, until recently, thought would ever be activated again. It was a solemn, though not unexpected outcome, given that California’s drought is entering its fourth year and the Mono Lake watershed is officially classified as being under “exceptional” drought.
Thankfully, aggressive water conservation in Los Angeles, including Mayor Garcetti’s 20% conservation by 2017 goal, mean that even with this cutback the city’s needs and Mono Lake’s needs can both be met.
It is unavoidably disappointing to walk the shore and think of how much higher and healthier the lake was a just a few pre-drought years ago. But here’s the real shocker: how much worse it could be. If hard-won Mono Lake protection hadn’t been put into place two decades ago, the lake would be an unimaginable 29 feet lower, putting it at a salinity that would essentially end the ecosystem as we know it.
So as we start hoping for a wet 2015–16 winter, it is worth pausing to appreciate that Mono Lake stands as a shining example of how conservation and strong long-range water planning can simultaneously protect valuable natural treasures and assure that urban areas can meet their real water needs.
With that said, I now hand this update over to Greg Reis, Mono Lake Committee Information & Restoration Specialist…
Mono Lake has dropped 1.7 feet since we read the level a year ago. It has dropped four feet over the last three years—the driest three consecutive years on record. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, the snowpack being measured right now in the Sierra Nevada and some parts of the Mono Basin is the lowest on record, meaning this will likely be the driest year on record for snowmelt runoff in the Mono Basin. It will be a tough year for most aquatic ecosystems in California, and those in the Mono Basin are no exception.
The warm March weather already has caused the snow to start melting early, and Mono Lake to begin dropping. It dropped about a tenth of a foot in the last two weeks, and with the very low runoff expected, it may continue dropping through spring. It shouldn’t reach levels of concern for coyote predation of nesting gulls on the main nesting islets until at least next summer or fall.
Luckily a cold snowstorm is predicted for Sunday, and every little bit of precipitation will help in a year like this. Will the weather pattern change and give us an “Awesome April?” Although the April runoff forecast is quite accurate in most years, the final runoff forecast will be issued on May 1st. Over the next month and a half, both the Committee and DWP will be doing our best to predict how much the lake will drop over the next year with the latest available information. This is more challenging when it is drier than the driest year on record—with a new low data point for runoff this year, it is harder to look at the past and predict the future.