The Mono Lake Committee recently discovered that patience sometimes does pay off. On Aug. 27, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) Board of Commissioners approved a new settlement agreement to restore Rush, Lee Vining, Parker, and Walker creeks in the Mono Basin. The agreement, which will now go before the State Water Control Board for approval, is the result of three years of effort between the Mono Lake Committee, DWP, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and CalTrout. Under the agreement, the DWP will restore 19 miles of Mono Basin streams without any reduction to water exports to Los Angeles.
The California State Water Resources Control Board dictated the DWP’s requirement to restore streams in its landmark 1994 decision to establish protection measures for both Mono Lake and its tributary streams. A second decision followed in 1998, which laid out specific rules for restoration of the lake and streams. Beginning in 1998, the State Water Board conducted a scientific evaluation of the Mono Lake stream systems, concluding with a lengthy Synthesis Report in 2010.
The Synthesis Report detailed Stream Ecosystem Flows (SEFs), which would mimic natural runoff patterns to increase the health of streams. However, the DWP resisted applying these SEFs out of concern that the water used in the streams would reduce the DWP’s overall export from the Mono Basin to Los Angeles.
The DWP also faced the on-the-ground challenge of releasing water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct back into the streams, given the purpose of the Aqueduct, which was extended to the Mono Basin in 1941. The Aqueduct facilities “weren’t constructed in a way that makes it easy, or even possible, in the case of Rush Creek, to release the water back,” explained Mono Lake Committee Executive Director Geoff McQuilkin. They were constructed with a single purpose, he said: “to take all the water.”
Currently, the DWP diverts and exports about 16,000 acre-feet, or more than $10 million, in water from the Mono Basin per year.
The Mono Lake Committee assuaged the DWP’s fears about SEFs depleting water exports to Los Angeles, noting that the water flow to streams will remain the same. Under the agreement, “It’s the right amount, delivered at the right time,” McQuilkin said. For instance, the DWP will release greater flows of water to streams in the springtime, with lesser flows in fall and winter.
To tackle the challenge of releasing water from antiquated aqueduct facilities back into the streams, the new agreement also requires the DWP to modify Grant Dam by constructing an outlet to deliver SEFs to Rush Creek. The DWP must complete construction and begin operation within four years of the State Water Board approval of the agreement, which may occur as soon as the end of the year.
To compensate the DWP for this expense, the other agencies agreed that the DWP be given a one-time allowance to export an additional 12,000 acre-feet of water from the Mono Basin, only if the DWP achieves timely construction progress. The 12,000 acre-feet will cover about half the cost of the outlet without delaying Mono Lake’s long-term rise to the mandated management level of 6,392 feet above sea level, according to the Mono Lake Committee website. The Lake currently rests at about 6,381 feet.
McQuilkin emphasized the adaptive nature of the settlement agreement, which fully accepts the 2010 Synthesis Report, but will continue to evolve according to data gathered through monitoring funded by the DWP. Depending on what the Mono Lake Committee and DWP learn about the effectiveness of the SEFs, “Stream flows can be adjusted to maximize benefit,” he said. Timing, duration and magnitude may all be altered.
In addition, the agreement also creates a new oversight team composed of the DWP, Mono Lake Committee, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and CalTrout, with collaborative, annual and multi-year Aqueduct operations planning.
When asked why the famously litigious DWP agreed to the settlement, McQuilkin pointed to the level of trust built up between the Mono Lake Committee and DWP over three years of discussion about the implementation of the 2010 Synthesis Report. Ultimately, he said, the DWP came to understand that a more effective approach to stream restoration would be beneficial to them as well. Stream restoration requirements were already part of the DWP water license through the State Water Board, he said, and “Although there was some arm wrestling in there, we also generated a collaborative study of stream flow, and a mapping of how the aqueduct works, that built up the comfort level of the DWP.”
This year also marks the centennial of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, McQuilkin added. “It’s a good time [for the DWP] to show a vision of the Aqueduct that allows for a balance between the needs of Los Angeles and environmental needs,” he said.
LADWP General Manager Ron Nichols concurred. “We all look forward to what will be a new era of cooperation and a bright future for the four Eastern Sierra streams that flow into Mono Lake,” he said.