Tag Archives: Mono Lake

100 years on: what value water?

LA is 40% paved over
suburban LA – water fueled

When you have been working with redwoods, 100 years is a moment. Enough time for a giant to grow a few inches in girth and a few feet in height, But when you’re dealing with water and Los Angeles it is a game changer.

A century ago, Los Angeles was largely reliant on the water that fell in its own backyard. Then Mulholland opened the canal gates and the people of L.A. took what they had been given.  Rain and snow from the eastern Sierra mountains could now flow under gravity to fuel the growth of suburban Los Angeles. It was then and is now an engineering marvel.

It’s all too easy to see this as a bad thing.  After all, as water flowed south the Owens Valley and Mono Lake suffered. I went there earlier this summer and saw the toxic dust clouds myself. The lake levels are down and the natural system is suffering as a result of all the water that is shipped south to this day.

At the same time, that water has changed the world.


I grew up in England in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a long way from Los Angeles. But L.A. loomed large in television shows, popular culture, and fast food.  And the world tried to emulate it.  It is not a stretch to say that the Hollywood dream machine was built on the back of water from the Owens Valley.

And that’s where the problem comes in.  Classical economic theory would have it that a rational person chooses the option that maximizes economic return. Well that water diverted from the Owens Valley has created an awful lot of value down here in Southern California and around the world. Some might argue that it is greater than the value of all the fish and critters that lived in the Owens Valley.  So in theory if we had it over, we’d do it all again. Personally, I think that a simple economic approach is short-sighted and ignores the intrinsic values of nature that cannot (or should not) be monetized.

Because there is no going back, the challenge is where we go in the next 100 years. Realistically, we are going to continue transferring water from the Owens Valley (and Colorado and Bay Delta). The promise ahead is to do it in a way that helps L.A. and the Owens Valley, Colorado Basin and Bay Delta recover. One way to do this is to make better use of our water resources here in Los Angeles.

And that brings me to Heal the Bay. We’ve been focused on water quality in Santa Monica Bay for 28 years. We’ve also focused not only on water quality, but water supply as well. The two are inextricably linked. Our science and policy team has been working with local municipalities to mobilize public support for a stormwater funding measure that would build green infrastructure throughout the county. Capturing and reusing stormwater helps reduce water pollution, helps develop local water supplies, and in turn reduces our dependence on imported water. So it’s good for our bay, good for the Owens Valley, good for the Colorado River system, and good for the Bay Delta.  I am sure it makes economic sense. But it also just happens to be the right thing to do.

– See more at: http://www.healthebay.org/blogs-news/la-aqueduct-dollars-and-sense#sthash.cCiHGfy1.dpuf

MonoLake 060
A yard stick in Mono Lake stands witness to LA’s thirst

Are these the youngest mountains in North America?

As a geographer, I am always on the look-out for strange and unusual facts about our world. A Ranger in the visitor center by Mono Lake threw a surprising one out at me a few weeks ago. Pointing at a series of craters extending south of Mono Lake he announced that they made up the youngest mountain range in North America — with the last eruption happening about 500 years ago.

Mono Inyo Craters -- the youngest mountains in north America?
Mono Inyo Craters — the youngest mountains in north America?

I wonder.

I realize I don’t fully understand what constitutes a mountain in America, and hence a range. Does it matter when it started to build or when it stopped? A quick check of the internet has articles from wikipedia on mega-mountains — the Appalachians, the Tetons, and such — all with justifiable claims to being the youngest.

Regardless, this chain of craters — the Mono-Inyo craters — looked fascinating from afar and I can’t wait to go back.

What do you think? Accurate claim or bogus?

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.