Three people walking along the shore of Mono Lake with tufa towers around them and in the water, with the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains in the background.

DWP attempts to undermine State Water Board mandates at Mono Lake

The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) launched a brazen strategy earlier this year to undermine the California State Water Resources Control Board mandate to protect and restore Mono Lake.

In the spring, DWP abruptly announced it wouldn’t fulfill certain obligations to restore Rush, Lee Vining, Parker, and Walker creeks unless it received new water export guarantees in the entirely separate matter of restoring Mono Lake to its healthy management level.

In response to this unexpected and alarming turn of events, the Mono Lake Committee has mounted a firm response and mobilized staff , attorneys, and expert advisors to remind DWP and Los Angeles leaders of DWP’s obligations to restore the streams to health and, separately, to raise Mono Lake.

The problem took off in May when DWP announced that it would not release a long-delayed, yet nearly complete, environmental document despite a scheduled commitment to the State Water Board to do so. The document is a straightforward but essential component of the ongoing State Water Board process of implementing science-based improvements to its ordered stream restoration program.

In fact, for years, DWP has been slowing down State Water Board implementation of the landmark 2013 Stream Restoration Agreement, which provided consensus on science-based stream restoration measures and was signed by DWP, the Committee, California Trout, and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife. DWP previously promised delivery of the document in 2016 and had even completed the public review process before holding it up internally.

Weaken lake protection?

By summer we learned that DWP was planning much worse than its typical delay tactics. DWP proposed that it would deliver the withheld environmental document and follow through on its stream restoration commitments—if the Agreement parties provided new guarantees about water exports.

Don’t worry if you are scratching your head trying to understand how DWP thinks fulfilling existing commitments is a bargaining chip—so were we.

What new guarantees did DWP want? Nothing to do with stream restoration, or the Agreement. Instead it jumped into the entirely separate matter of restoring Mono Lake. It would meet the stream restoration obligations, DWP offered, in exchange for weakening its Mono Lake restoration obligations.

DWP went even further, rolling out unfounded claims that the Agreement contained precisely the provisions it wanted. When asked to point those out, DWP conceded the claims weren’t explicitly in the language of the Agreement. Subsequently DWP said that it simultaneously supported but also wanted to alter the Agreement.

The answer to all these games and false arguments is a defi nitive “no.” The Committee made that abundantly clear at multiple points through the summer, as did our stream restoration partners at CalTrout and Fish & Wildlife.

What is DWP really up to?

Because excessive water diversions by DWP drastically lowered Mono Lake, it is now, 26 years later, still rising from dangerously low levels toward that safe management level. The State Water Board’s fundamental Mono Lake ruling requires that the lake be managed at a long-term ecologically healthy level, which it identifi ed after extensive analysis in the landmark Mono Lake decision in 1994.

As the summer wore on we learned more about DWP’s intent to interfere with this fundamental mandate. An internal talking points document that was made public falsely claimed that Mono Lake has “largely been restored,” suggesting DWP intends to make a case that the lake will be fi ne without rising to the management level at all. We’ve heard that before—30 years ago from DWP attorneys arguing in courtrooms and hearing rooms that the lake didn’t need protection.

DWP’s talking points on paper, unsurprisingly, don’t have much to do with the facts on the ground. For example, the lake is only 40% of the way to the mandated healthy level, Mono Lake’s exposed lakebed is the source of the largest particulate (PM-10) dust storms in the nation, and we’re less than two drought years away from the lake falling to a level at which predators could once again walk the exposed landbridge to prey on one of the world’s largest California Gull nesting colonies.

So why make such a claim? DWP is apparently worried that the State Water Board will look at the status of Mono Lake and modify diversion criteria—in other words, how much water DWP can take annually—to accelerate the rise of Mono Lake to its mandated healthy level. Indeed, the State Water Board decision contains a plan for a hearing to check on the status of the lake’s rise and to consider such amendments to present-day diversion criteria. It is reasonable resource management to ensure that the lake restoration goal is met, but DWP’s wish list of new guarantees undermines the value of such a hearing.

The Committee won’t be letting DWP ignore its obligations to the lake and to the streams under the State Water Board decision—nor forget history. In 1994, the Mayor and other Los Angeles leaders agreed with the Committee that the State Water Board decision set forth the plan for the future and resolved the dispute over Mono Lake. Raising the lake and restoring the streams is a mutual goal that the City shares with the State Water Board and the Committee. We believe the City is still committed to that goal; we know Los Angeles residents are. DWP cannot be allowed to undercut this alliance for its own myopic self-interest.

Work ahead

With all the Stream Restoration Agreement parties rejecting DWP’s untenable proposal, this recent attack on restoration has not worked as DWP had hoped. Seeing the Committee as the primary obstacle, DWP recently lashed out, accusing us in a letter of acting in bad faith and rewriting the intent of the Agreement. Such correspondence is disappointing to receive but is an easy burden to bear when advocating honestly for the restoration of both Mono Lake and the tributary streams under existing State Water Board mandates.

Our list of action items to keep restoration of both the lake and the streams on track is robust—ranging from politics to legal matters to questions of climate change and the hydrology of the lake itself. In the big picture, that’s why we are here. The Mono Lake Committee has existed for more than half the aqueduct’s history in the Mono Basin and the need is as great as ever for a strong public voice to counter DWP. Constant vigilance, even during the turmoil of a pandemic, and strong defense of Mono Lake and its tributary streams are core goals of the Committee mission. With the support of Committee members, we will continue to make certain that the damaged streams are restored to health and that Mono Lake rises to its mandated healthy level.

Top photo by Sandra Noll. This post was also published as an article in the Fall 2020 Mono Lake Newsletter (pages 3 & 4).