Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

The War Waged for Mono Lake

The war of politics and power waged on behalf of Mono Lake and its water has been so contentious, convoluted, and long-running, and has involved so many public agencies and public hearings, so many lawsuits and compromises, that the simple facts are virtually impossible to separate from the details.

Central to the saga, though, is the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “If we don’t get the water,” said self-taught engineer and water czar William Mulholland in 1907, “we won’t need it.” To get water to the L.A. desert—necessary to fulfill his vision of a lush southstate paradise, only incidentally profitable to real estate interests secretly connected to the plan—Mulholland and his DWP proposed an aqueduct that would carry the eastern Sierra Nevada’s water south from the Owens Valley (and the towns of Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, and Lone Pine) to Los Angeles. To gain support (and municipal bond funding) for “Mulholland’s ditch,” even the Los Angeles Times helped fudge on the facts—convincing the public in the early 1900s that a drought existed, a deception unchallenged until the 1950s.

After buying up nearly all private land in the Owens Valley (usually dishonestly, by condemning the land and water rights by lawsuit to drive down the price), Mulholland and his water people had their finest day in November 1913, when the first Owens Valley water flowed into the aqueduct: 30,000 people showed up for the event.

Commenting on the subsequent, permanent desolation of the once lush, quarter-million-acre Owens Valley, the cowboy comedian Will Rogers said soberly: “Los Angeles had to have more water for its Chamber of Commerce to drink more toasts to its growth.”

As L.A.’s thirst grew ever more unquenchable—by 1930, the city’s population had grown from 200,000 to 1.2 million—violence over eastern Sierra Nevada water rights became commonplace. Denied use of the land as abruptly as their forebears had denied the native Paiutes, outraged ranchers “captured” and controlled the aqueduct on many occasions, and dynamited it 17 times. But urban growth was seemingly unstoppable, and in 1930, L.A. voters approved another bond issue—to extend the aqueduct north into the Mono Lake Basin.


Mono Lake, 2003 (photo by Neil Girling)

Following completion of this northern stretch in 1941, runoff from Rush, Lee Vining, Walker, and Parker Creeks was diverted into the ditch-tunnel drilled under the Mono Craters and into the Owens River and aqueduct. Even worse for Mono Lake—with its water level dropping and its delicate aquatic ecology suffering almost instantaneously—Los Angeles completed a second aqueduct in 1970, to “salvage” runoff otherwise lost to the lake. Until quite recently, Mono Lake had been shrinking ever since. In 1990, it was estimated that about 17 percent of Los Angeles water came from Mono Lake. California’s Dead Sea had nearly died as a direct result.

Central to the present-day chapter of Mono Lake’s story is David Gaines, longtime Lee Vining resident, biologist, and founder of the Mono Lake Committee—killed, along with committee staffer Don Oberlin, in a January 1988 car accident near Mammoth Lakes. Though he surely would have loved to see Mono Lake’s waters rise again, at the time of his death, Gaines had already made major progress toward that eventual result. Starting in the 1970s, he and his growing, loosely organized band of Mono Lake lovers began taking on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and anyone else involved, even through passive inaction. From guerrilla theater and educational “events”—such as public picketing, protests, and volunteer bucket brigades hand-carrying water from Lee Vining Creek to Mono Lake—to press conferences and political confrontations, the Mono Lake Committee was untiring in its war against water diversions.

As a result, the Interagency Mono Lake Task Force—including representatives from Mono County, the L.A. Department of Water and Power, the California Departments of Water Resources and Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the federal Bureau of Land Management—was convened. The group agreed, by 1980, that the only way to protect the natural resources of the Mono Basin was by curtailing water diversions and raising the lake’s level. An almost endless round of lawsuits against the DWP and state and federal regulatory agencies (along with countersuits) in both the state and federal court systems has subsequently helped implement the task force recommendations.

A state Supreme Court decision in 1983—specifically related to Mono Lake but setting the California legal precedent that now protects all state waters—declared that lakes, rivers, and other natural resources are owned by all the people and must be protected by the state for the public trust. Though competing needs are undeniable, the right to divert water from any ecosystem depends upon that system’s continued health—and if harm occurs, water rights must be adjusted accordingly, throughout time.


Mono Lake at First Light (photo by Howard Ignatius)

But though the tide finally turned in Mono Lake’s favor, at least legally, skirmishes have continued over how much water must be released into the Mono Lake Basin to ensure the health of that ecosystem—how much water will protect island-nesting gulls from coyote predation, how much water will protect the lake’s brine shrimp, how much water will protect the region’s stream fisheries. Needless to say, the opinions of Mono Lake Committee members and other environmentalists differ from those of L.A.’s Department of Water and Power. Actual cutbacks in diversions—under court order—didn’t begin until 1989.

Political pundits contended at the time that recent state legislation to make peace at Mono Lake merely pays the city of Los Angeles, with public funds, to strike a rather vague deal with the Mono Lake Committee—and encourages L.A. to increase groundwater pumping from Inyo County’s Owens Valley, all at California taxpayers’ expense. “If this is what peace looks like for Mono Lake and the Owens Valley,” commented the Sacramento Bee‘s Bill Kahrl, “it’s hard to understand what anyone thought was worth fighting for in the first place.”

Members of the Mono Lake Committee answered that even successful lawsuits have not yet protected Mono Lake, and that state legislative action at least opens the door for a lasting peace. The committee also noted that new state and federal water reclamation and conservation projects would more than compensate for L.A.’s loss of Mono Lake water.


Groundwater pumping has increased elsewhere in Owens Valley (photo of dry Owens Lake, in the distance, by James Kirkus-Lamont)

Events of immediate, and lasting, benefit to Mono Lake continued through the 1990s. In 1994, the State Water Resources Control Board promised that Mono Lake’s water level would rise to 6,392 feet above sea level (it was 6,417 feet in 1941, when water diversions began)—an accomplishment expected then to take some 20 years, though that time frame has stretched out considerably since—and supported the restoration of the lake’s watershed streams and wetlands. The DWP now has multiple meetings each year with the Mono Lake Committee to coordinate efforts and improve communication, sessions described by the committee as “collegial” and a “testament to the progress made in opening up communication . . . . and building a promising working relationship.” The Mono Lake Committee now offers tours of DWP facilities.

But despite L.A.’s impressive progress in water conservation, the city’s Department of Water and Power has indeed increased its groundwater pumping in the Owens Valley, directly south, to the great detriment of that environment—at least initially, a crisis without a committee to speak on its behalf. Now there is one: the Owens Valley Committee, though the groundwater struggle goes on.


L.A.’s DWP is proposing a 1,200-acre solar array for the Owens Valley near Manzanar (photo of solar array that helps power Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada by J.S. Moorman)

And new conflicts over Owens Valley land and resource use are emerging, including the DWP’s proposal for a 1,200-acre solar power array in the center of the valley near Manzanar. The OVC left the Mono Lake Planning Committee in 2013, over groundwater, dust mitigation, and other disagreements with the DWP and another nonprofit citizens action group, The Deepest Valley, has formed. Both groups fight on.

The war over eastern Sierra Nevada water—and power too, now—continues.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>