Restoring Mono Lake

It’s summer in California — time to soak up the sun and spend time outdoors. Knowing it is not going to rain for months is so different for me than growing up in England. It means you can plan ahead and not have to have a rain plan!

But the lack of year-round rain also means California has gone to extreme lengths to re-plumb much of the state to capture and store water from the mountains and the northland where the water is and deliver it to the southland where the people are. In the process there have been some pretty devastating consequences to our natural areas. Much of the debate at present is centered on the Bay Delta system — to build a peripheral canal or not. But that’s not the only big decision coming up.

A few weeks ago I stopped by Mono Lake on my way back from the east side of the Sierra. This jewell-like lake in the high desert has got to be one of the most unusual places in California what with its tufa towers, brine shrimp ecosystem, gull colonies, and lack of outfall. And since 1941 it’s also been plumbed in to the Los Angeles water supply system.

Gull Colonies at Mono Lake
Gull Colonies at Mono Lake

Since 1941, the city of Los Angeles has diverted water from the four creeks that feed this lake to feed its growing thirst. As the water was diverted, the lake level started to drop. Things got dire in the 1970s following a doubling of the capacity of the pipes that take water south under gravity flow. The water level reached 45 feet below normal levels and everything started to unravel. The island that contained one of the most important breeding grounds for sea gulls in the west became a peninsula and the coyotes moved in, decimating the bird population. And the receding lake line exposed saline flats that when whipped up by the wind led to air quality in the basin failing to meet state standards.

MonoLake 060As a result of litigation by the Mono Lake Committee, Audubon, California Trout and others, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered L.A. Water and Power to start restoring the damaged area. Interim measures like barbed-wire fences to keep the coyotes out were laughable. What was needed to raise the lake level by reducing diversions. The agreement had the lake level pegged at 25 feet below the pre-diversion levels — enough to flood the peninsula and cover the saline flats. But not enough to restore a fully functioning ecosystem.

According to the staff at the visitor center, that 20-year agreement will be up for renewal next year. Despite 20 years of progress and water conservation in Los Angeles, the lake level has yet to reach the agreed upon level. Let’s hope that the next 20 years sees more progress and even as LA continues to grow, Mono Lake can be restored in time to its pre-diversion levels.

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