There’s little water to go around, but there seems to be enough to keep the dust down an Owens Dry Lake and keep Mono Lake from drying up. Water allocated to both lakes is the result of court orders that force the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to mitigate the effects of diverting water to Los Angeles.
Because of this, the lakes also make a convenient scapegoat out of LADWP, which often gets the blame for a lack of water to allocate to lease holders, ranchers, and farmers.
But with historic drought conditions, even those court orders will not keep the lakes from drying. LADWP is currently working on ways to save water at Owens Lake and pass that savings on to leaseholders and ranchers while keeping dust to a minimum.
Mono Lake is a little different, as LADWP water diversions have been cut significantly, but the wildlife that calls the lake home is threatened.
The land bridge connecting the shore, known as Black Point, with Negit Island at the center of the ancient and iconic Mono Lake, is nearly formed due to historic drought conditions. Should the land bridge fully form, coyotes from the mainland could wreak havoc on one of the nation’s largest rookeries.
Populations on Negit Island peak at 44,000 to 65,000 gulls during prime nesting periods. In 1979, because of LADWP water diversions, the bridge fully formed and coyotes ravaged the gull chick population. Adult birds then shunned the island until 1999.
The bridge is currently visible from Route 395, with tentacles of land reaching for the island and the bird nests. Mono Lake Committee Eastern Sierra Policy Director Lisa Cutting explained there has been a nest count and chicks will be banded; monitoring efforts will continue several times this year.
The drop in lake level has also affected the LADWP’s water export. The LADWP normally takes about 16,000 acre-feet per year from Mono Lake by diverting the lake’s tributary streams, but this year the lake’s level dropped to 6,388 feet above sea level, triggering mitigation measures which allow the LADWP to only divert 4,500 acre-feet this year.
The lake level will be checked again in April 2016 to determine if the lower rate will remain for another year.
According to Cutting, if the lake drops to below 6,377, LADWP will be unable to divert any water, but that is not a very distinct possibility, she said.
The mandates and triggers were part of a State Water Resources Control Board, part of the historical settlement from the landmark 1994 decision. The settlement also mandated DWP restore stream and bird habitat damaged by the diversions.
Cutting said she credits the Water Board for its “forward thinking” in having water elevation triggers to prevent the lake from going dry.
LADWP has already taken its allotment for the year, and the lake is currently at 6,379 with the help of summer storms.
Owens Dry Lake
Another major bird migration and nesting ground for 40,000 to 60,000 and 22 different species is the Owens Dry Lake. Water that could be used to by ranching and grazing allotments has been reduced to a bare minimum this drought year and is being used on dust mitigation. This is part of another lawsuit that directs LADWP to keep the dangerous particulates that blow off the lake to a minimum.
Inyo County Water Director Bob Harrington said the irrigation water provided by DWP to the Owens Valley is approximately 49,000 acre-feet annually while there’s between 50,000 and 75,000 acre-feet used for dust control.
Great Basin Air Pollution Control District Officer Phil Kiddoo said Owens Lake is regularly thrown under the bus by LADWP, used as an excuse for why there’s not enough water to go around.
Kiddoo said yes, LADWP has court orders to keep dust down at Owens Lake and prevent Mono Lake from drying up, but there’s also enough water to keep lawns green and swimming pools filled in Southern California, so there should be enough water to keep pastures green in the Owens Valley.
LADWP Aqueduct Manager James Yannotta has told Inyo County Supervisors the lake is a mandated water use, but added that any water saved at the lake will be given to the County leaseholders for irrigation.
Kiddoo said for the past four years he has told the LADWP it can save water with the water saturation for dust mitigation at the lake, and data is being collected now to scientifically back up that claim. A pilot project called dynamic water management is being tried this year and may be used in the future.
Drowning some particularly problematic and dusty sections of the lake is one of the many ways DWP is controlling unhealthy dust storms. This saturation starts in the dust season, the fall, usually on Oct. 16. These dates, should the variance pass, would move to Dec. 1 and Jan. 16. The date to start ramping down the saturations has been moved from June 30 to April 30. Water will be saved by it not evaporating in the hot early spring months. Kiddoo said the LADWP will not have to micromanage areas as the saturation levels ramp down, a persistent and expensive problem for LADWP.
The areas that have been saturated, some that had not felt water for a hundred years and were high-particulate trouble areas, have begun sprouting native trees and bringing back wildlife. Kiddoo called it an unintentional biproduct of the mitigation work.
The LADWP has filed for a variance for the project. Kiddoo said it could save between 6,900 and 9,300 acre-feet annually that could benefit lease holders this year.