Happy Save Mono Lake Day, 29th anniversary edition

“Today, my friends, we’ve done the right thing. Today, we saved Mono Lake.”
—Marc Del Piero, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, September 28, 1994

On September 28, 1994, the California State Water Resources Control Board issued Decision 1631, amending the City of Los Angeles’ water licenses “to establish fishery protection flows in streams tributary to Mono Lake and to protect Public Trust resources at Mono Lake and in the Mono Lake Basin.”

State Water Board Decision 1631 marked a new era of environmental commitment in Los Angeles when city leaders joined with the Mono Lake Committee and state and federal agencies to declare that the State Water Board had found the path forward. All would support raising the lake to a healthy management level, the restoration of the damaged streams, and sustainable water supply development to meet the real needs of the city. Photo by Geoff McQuilkin.

There was urgency in this action back in 1994, and today, as we arrive at the 29th anniversary of this history-making decision, the lake is still nine vertical feet below the Public Trust lake level—a problem that looms large for the lake, its unique ecosystem, its millions migratory and nesting birds, and people who care for and rely on this special place. While this year’s formidable lake level rise has been exciting, Los Angeles Department of Water & Power water diversions will soon begin chipping away at the progress made.

“This decision … amends Los Angeles’s water right licenses,” the State Water Board declared, “to gradually restore the average water elevation of Mono Lake to approximately 6,392 feet above mean sea level in order to protect public trust resources at Mono Lake.” Today DWP diversions continue and yet the lake is ten years late and nine feet short of reaching the 6392-foot level, shown here at the top of the pole. Photo by Santiago M. Escruceria.

The State Water Board decision established the Public Trust lake level at 6392 feet above sea level, determining it to be the healthy management level necessary to protect the lake. The Board expected that it would take about 20 years for the lake to rise to 6392 in a plan that also provided for some water diversions to Los Angeles.

In addition, 6392 will reduce the lake salinity so that a healthy ecosystem can thrive, improve air quality by covering exposed dry lakebed and reducing toxic dust storms, protect the nesting California Gull colony, and provide a buffer of water to protect the lake in the face of climate change.

A big year

This year, at a workshop held by the State Water Board in February, Mono Lake Committee members and experts showed up in the hundreds and wrote letters in the thousands, bringing the sense of urgency that resonated with the Board.

Today, as in 1994, the Mono Lake Committee is dedicated to helping Los Angeles secure more water conservation measures. LA leaders have already made significant commitments to rapidly implementing environmentally responsible local supply projects such as stormwater capture, turf replacement, conservation, and water recycling.

The people of LA are calling for the same solutions. In front of the LA City Council Energy & Environment Committee, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice leader mark! Lopez talked about “the imperative to stop relying on imported water” from Mono Lake for the sake of Los Angeles, because “the more that we become free of that the stronger we get in our communities when it comes to resilience.”

While we are still awaiting word on a specific hearing date, we are heartened by the great interest in this issue shown in Los Angeles and in the media as people are realizing that Mono Lake still needs saving.

Celebrating the anniversary

Volunteers pull Bassia hyssopifolia, an invasive shrub, from Twain Islet, the primary nesting site for California Gulls. Photo by Bartshe Miller.

Today out at Mono Lake we’ve gathered a hearty crew of volunteers to help remove a rapidly spreading and tenacious invasive weed from the islets where the California Gulls nest. This issue is one of many that illustrate the problems of the lake lingering below its management level.

In the weeks ahead we’ll be losing some of the lake level gains we’ve seen this year when DWP begins exporting 4,500 acre-feet of water allowed under the current water diversion rules.

There is much work to be done in order to reach the Public Trust lake level, so I encourage you to take a moment for a virtual visit to Mono Lake. The BBC just released this four-minute video on Decision 1631 and the current state of Mono Lake that provides a great summary of where things stand for Mono Lake. PBS Nature visited this summer and made this beautiful and inspiring nine-minute video.

“We cannot overemphasize the value—to ourselves and future generations—of a living, healthy Mono Lake.”
—David Gaines, Co-Founder, Mono Lake Committee

Top photo courtesy of John Dittli.