This winter is really snowy—is Mono Lake out of danger?

April 2023 update: Record wet winter at Mono Lake will help protect California Gulls in 2023 

This winter has exceeded all expectations in terms of snowfall at Mono Lake. Read more about what this means for protecting California Gulls this year.

More than seven feet (88 inches, to be exact) of snow have fallen in Lee Vining since the new year began, bringing some relief from the drought and catapulting the Mono Basin outlook for the runoff year into the well-above-average category.

Given these dramatic few weeks of precipitation, it’s reasonable to wonder whether and how all this snow changes the emergency lake level situation at Mono Lake.

California Gulls still need a protective fence

Despite the plentiful snow we’re still planning to install the temporary electric fence across the landbridge for the upcoming nesting season. Gulls start nesting and laying eggs around April each year, which is earlier than all this snow will melt. We expect Mono Lake to rise once that snowmelt begins, but that won’t be until June and later, far too late to benefit the gulls for the current nesting season. Even one coyote reaching the nesting colony early in the season could result in multiple years of disruption to the gulls, so the fence is still crucial.

Will one year’s gains in lake level be preserved?

Once the snow does start to melt we expect Mono Lake to rise several feet this year (how many depends on the rest of the winter), hopefully leaving behind these current, very low levels. But our request to the State Water Board to suspend the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power’s (DWP) stream diversions when the lake is below 6384 feet surface elevation still stands.

Under the current stream diversion rules, the gain from wet years like this one is not preserved. We saw this happen in 2017, another year when the snow started falling at New Year’s and hardly seemed to stop. Mono Lake rose an incredible 4.5 feet that year, but that increase in lake level didn’t last. While the lake level decreased naturally due to subsequent dry years, continuing DWP water diversions from the tributary streams pushed the lake perilously low.

A temporary suspension of stream diversions until the lake rises to 6384 feet above sea level is the Committee’s recommendation to the State Water Board based on the hydrology analysis of what is needed to allow Mono Lake to build a buffer for the dry years that inevitably lie ahead. A buffer would ensure that the lake would not again sink low enough to violate water quality standards and ensure that gull nesting sites are not put at risk again. This is important to manage current low lake levels, but of course, the long-term need is to raise the lake to the 6392-foot management level mandated by the State Water Board.

Rainy winter helps with replacement water

Even a temporary suspension of stream diversions means a reduction in the amount of water DWP gets from the Mono Basin. Luckily, DWP has a number of ways to replace the 4,500 acre-feet of water that would remain in the Mono Basin this year if the State Water Board implements a suspension. Expanding stormwater capture efforts in Los Angeles is one of those ways—in a recent press release DWP estimated that “the cumulative amount of stormwater captured from October 1, 2022 through January 10, 2023 is nearly 32,500 acre-feet,” which is more than seven times the amount we’re asking be allowed to flow into Mono Lake this year.

We know that relying on one wet winter’s precipitation is not a plan—for Mono Lake or Los Angeles. The Committee has been pursuing $60 million in State funding to invest in water efficiency devices that would reduce water bills in low-income communities while saving water for Mono Lake. Many Los Angeles leaders are on board, but not DWP, so our work on this solution continues.

Stormwater capture, water efficiency investment, water recycling, turf replacement, and conservation are some of the ways DWP can replace water that is allowed to flow instead to Mono Lake. Mono Lake has far fewer supply options—water flowing down the streams is the only option for raising the lake.

Top photo by Geoff McQuilkin: Mill Creek, Mono Lake, and the Mono Craters on January 20, 2023.