Will LA take more Mono Lake water?

Mono Lake Committee and diverse LA coalition call on Mayor Bass to not increase water exports this year

Last year was notably wet, raising Mono Lake five feet—and creating a conundrum. Under rules written three decades ago, the lake’s rise over the 6,380-foot elevation threshold means that on April 1, 2024, the maximum limit on water diversions from Mono Lake increased nearly fourfold. Yet decades of evidence show that increasing water diversions will erode the wet year gains, stopping the lake from reaching the mandated healthy 6,392-foot elevation.

We respectfully request that this year, your administration choose to not increase water diversions from Mono Lake.

This flaw in the water diversion rules, now obvious after 30 years of implementation, has real-world results: Mono Lake is a decade late and eight feet short of achieving the healthy lake requirement. The California State Water Resources Control Board plans to examine this problem in a future hearing. But with that critical action many months away—and still unscheduled—the question for 2024 is: Will the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) choose to maintain the same export level as recent years—and help achieve required lake recovery? Or will DWP choose to quadruple its water diversions—and push Mono Lake’s level downward?

The Mono Lake Committee and Mono Lake friends are urging DWP and Los Angeles to keep diversion levels unchanged. As this issue of the Mono Lake Newsletter goes to press there is no decision out of Los Angeles yet.

Calling on the Mayor for action

Thirty years ago, the State Water Board limited DWP’s decades of excessive water diversions in order to halt Mono Lake’s destruction and protect the ecosystem, millions of migratory and nesting birds, clean air, and the ecological heritage of future generations. The decision was a momentous validation of the work of Mono Lake supporters to protect the lake. It was also momentous because Los Angeles leaders joined the Committee and many others to endorse the ruling and commit to restoring health to Mono Lake, its tributary streams, and its internationally significant ecological, cultural, scenic, wildlife, and recreation resources.

Knowing the recent lake rise would technically permit increased water diversion, the Committee has been highlighting the negative lake impacts of such an action—and the positives of standing by the commitment Los Angeles made to Mono Lake in 1994.

A gathering of Mono Lake friends in March, hosted in Los Angeles by environmental leader Mary Nichols, launched an effort by a coalition of the Committee and Los Angeles leaders to ask Mayor Karen Bass to, simply put, do the right thing for Mono Lake. The shared commitment to lake protection quickly generated a letter from a 32-member coalition that we sent to the Mayor prior to the April 1 lake level reading that confirmed the increase of the diversion maximum. The group includes leaders like Mark Gold and Ed Begley, Jr., community groups like Communities for a Better Environment, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and Pacoima Beautiful, alongside groups like the Sierra Club, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, and LA Audubon.

Mono Lake supporters catch up on the state of the lake and the streams, plus the decision facing Los Angeles about whether or not to increase diversions this year. Photo by Bartshe Miller.

Collectively we wrote to Mayor Bass in the letter: “We respectfully request that this year, your administration choose to not increase water diversions from Mono Lake.”

“There is a choice to make,” the letter continued, “and leaving diversion levels unchanged will help preserve the lake rise progress made last year.”

The letter highlighted that, “Under your leadership, Mono Lake diversions have not changed. Why risk Mono Lake impacts at this crucial moment with an increase? Coming off the very wet 2023 winter, water supplies are ample. Stormwater capture has increased, and per capita water use is falling, reflecting the successful conservation efforts of Angelenos.”

DWP’s draft plan to increase diversions

Every year, DWP develops an Annual Operations Plan for the Mono Basin. The plan is a requirement of the State Water Board, includes consultation with the Mono Lake Committee, California Trout, and California Department of Fish & Wildlife during development, and states DWP’s plans for the year to export water out of the Mono Basin to the city. What better place to record a commitment to leave diversion levels unchanged?

The first draft of the 2024 plan says that diversions will increase up to the maximum allowed. DWP has resolutely taken the maximum amount of water allowed from the Mono Basin for decades, so the unfortunate draft plan is unsurprising; to say differently requires direction from DWP and Los Angeles leadership.

As of press time the Committee is aware of discussions at the leadership level about fulfilling the request to leave diversion levels unchanged.

Plenty of communication from the Committee and allies continues to underscore the importance of making the right choice. And significantly, a May letter from the Mono Lake Kutzadika’a Tribe reiterated the call to not increase diversions, highlighting the importance of the action to the protection of Tribal cultural heritage and the Tribe’s future.

What will LA’s final plan be?

A final Mono Basin operations plan is due from DWP to the State Water Board in mid-May. The Committee and network of Mono Lake friends are working hard to ensure a firm commitment within the plan to leaving diversion levels unchanged. As of press time, the final decision is an open question.

The Committee continues to prepare for the hearing that will establish new multi-year rules governing stream diversions. Although the hearing date remains unknown, the State Water Board has prioritized Mono Lake in its 2024 workplan, and preparations have begun. Additionally the Committee is working on the issue of DWP’s failing aqueduct infrastructure at Grant Lake Reservoir which, if not addressed with a fast, smart plan, will hold back Rush Creek restoration for years. We are optimistic about Los Angeles acting to not increase diversions this year, consistent with the long-established agreement to implement the State Water Board decision. However, if DWP submits a final plan stating it will increase diversions, then our work will intensify in the months prior to DWP opening the valves and physically moving water out of the Mono Basin. All in all, a very busy summer season lies ahead, and the Committee will continue to advocate for the right outcome for Mono Lake.

Technical effort to reveal new Mono Lake level insights

In spring 2023, Mono Lake Committee and DWP leaders met with Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Energy & Sustainability Nancy Sutley to discuss Mono Lake and the need to better identify the paths forward that raise the lake to the Public Trust lake level required in the City’s water rights.

The result: a collaborative hydrology modeling effort that launched last fall and has invested hundreds of hours of collective time in discussion, modeling, and analysis. The group recently reported back on the results of ten different stream diversion scenarios.

The informational report compares the performance of scenarios that range from continuing the same problematic stream diversions of the past 30 years to fully pausing stream diversions. Additional scenarios include more than diversion volume adjustments. Diversion levels that vary between wet and dry years are part of the study, and of particular interest are dynamic diversion rules that adjust as the lake rises to lock in gains and avoid damaging declines in lake level.

Staff from the Committee, DWP, and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife conducted the modelling work, with the larger technical discussion group including the Mono Lake Kutzadika’a Tribe, California Trout, and the State Water Board. The Fall 2024 Mono Lake Newsletter will report on the results in detail.

This post was also published as an article in the Summer 2024 Mono Lake Newsletter. Top photo by Maureen McGlinchy.