The Mono Lake Committee, founded in 1978 to protect Mono Lake from excessive water diversions to Los Angeles, is gearing up for another battle with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) over stream restoration in the Mono Basin.
On July 8, the Committee released an update regarding their three-year effort to collaborate and negotiate with the LADWP over the restoration of four tributary streams: Rush, Lee Vining, Parker, and Walker Creeks. The required restoration of the streams is dictated by the California State Water Resources Control Board landmark decision in 1994 to establish protection measures both for Mono Lake and its tributary streams, as well as a second decision in 1998 to establish specific rules for restoration of the lake and streams.
Beginning in 1998, the State Water Board conducted an evaluation of the Mono Lake stream systems, concluding with a lengthy report in 2010. “The Water Board back then was clever enough to say, ‘We don’t know the perfect way to restore streams,’ and bring in a team of scientists,” explained Mono Lake Committee Executive Director Geoff McQuilkin. The study took into account factors like how wet and dry years shaped the channels, as well as what water levels and temperatures were ideal for fish and vegetation, McQuilkin said.
In 2010, with the report in hand, the State Water Board requested that the Committee, LADWP, and other involved parties review the findings and work out an implementation plan. The scientific report “offered a set of recommendations or prescriptions for how to restore the streams, mostly through natural processes,” McQuilkin said. However, the LADWP raised concerns that the new restoration flow and management would take water away from Los Angeles, McQuilkin said. “But studies confirmed that there would be no impact to water supply,” he explained.
According to McQuilkin, the LADWP currently diverts and exports about 16,000 acre-feet, or more than $10 million in water, out of the Mono Basin every year.
The true challenge facing the LADWP in the implementation of the stream restoration plan is the age and historical purpose of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which was extended to the Mono Basin in 1941. “The facilities were built to take all the water,” McQuilkin said. “They weren’t constructed in a way that makes it easy, or even possible, in the case of Rush Creek, to release the water back.”
At Rush Creek, according to a May 22 article published by McQuilkin on the Committee website, “One way of releasing water… requires draining the aqueduct pipe, then having DWP employees climb into the aqueduct conduit and barricade the inside of the pipe, then refilling the pipe so it overflows out a nearby bypass gate, then draining it again, then having employees return to remove the barricade materials. Obviously, a modern structure would have a release valve built in—probably one that could be operated and monitored remotely from DWP offices in Bishop.”
The LADWP must modernize some of their facilities in the Mono Basin to allow for a return flow of water to the depleted stream systems, McQuilkin said. He believes such an upgrade “is pretty reasonable, within the scope of a project like this.”
Yet the LADWP has continued to resist approving an implementation plan, the Committee reported. Now, with four negotiation deadlines come and gone, the Committee may have to resort to more extreme measures: namely a State Water Board hearing process similar to that which yielded the 1994 Mono Lake decision.
In a June 26 letter to the State Water Board, the Mono Lake Committee requested that the Board begin the process of taking over control of decision-making regarding stream restoration in the Mono Basin. The Board allotted 90 days of public comment on the LADWP’s legal dispute to the stream scientist’s report, and on October 1, if the Committee and LADWP have not yet reached a resolution, the State Water Board will begin to prepare for a hearing.
The Mono Lake Committee may have a second battle on their hands as well, considering the LADWP has yet to fulfill its obligations regarding the water level at Mono Lake. The Lake, which had a pre-diversion level of 6,417 feet about sea level in 1941, dropped 45 vertical feet from 1941 to the 1982. The 1994 State Water Board decision mandated that the Lake be brought back to a target level of 6,392 feet above sea level; however, the Lake currently rests at about 6,381 feet. The LADWP must raise that level by 11 feet to meet the target level by next year, or the State Water Resources Control Board will step in to re-examine the situation.