Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) released its Mono Lake level forecast for the 2014 runoff year.
The forecast, for April 1, 2014 through March 31, 2015, projects that Mono Lake’s waterline will drop from its current elevation of 6,380.6 to 6,379 feet above sea level by December.
According to the Mono Lake Committee (MLC), this will be the lowest level since March, 1996.
The May 1 level of the lake is already a tenth of a foot lower than the LADWP prediction, which the MLC said has happened in April of the last two years as well.
The past three years have been the driest consecutive runoff years on record in the Mono Basin.
“It’s painful to watch this lake go down,” said MLC Executive Director Geoff McQuilkin. “But a lot of painful things are happening across the State.”
The projected 2014 water level will be a major setback to the achievement of the State Water Board-mandated water level of 6,392 feet. The Water Board created that management level 20 years ago in response to the efforts of the MLC to protect both Mono Lake and its tributary streams.
Prior to the Water Board ruling, Mono Lake had dropped 45 vertical feet between 1941 and 1982 as a result of LADWP pumping.
While the LADWP was to have met the 6,392 management level goal by this year, instead, because of drought, McQuilkin said the lake level is within nine inches of a threshold that would require the DWP to reduce water exports by three quarters next year.
“It’s good we have that threshold,” he said, “but it’s bad when you hit it.”
The LADWP currently exports about 16,000 acre-feet of water from the Mono Basin; reaching the threshold would reduce export to about 4,500 acre-feet.
In order to stay above the threshold, Mono Lake will need to receive about 28,000 more acre-feet of water (in the form of more runoff, less evaporation, and/or more precipitation) by April 1, 2015, than the current LADWP forecast predicts.
With lower levels of water in Mono Lake, McQuilkin also noted a potential for larger, more intense dust storms. Less fresh water supplying the lake also means greater salinity, which he said is hard on alkali flies and migrating birds.
And, if the water level drops three more feet, “We will get a land bridge [to the lake islands],” McQuilkin said. This would allow coyotes access to California Gull nests. However, that would happen only if the drought continues through the next several years.
One thing that hasn’t been affected by the low lake level is the river restoration settlement agreement reached between the MLC, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, CalTrout, and the LADWP almost a year ago. Under the agreement, the LADWP will restore 19 miles of Mono Basin streams without any reduction to water exports to Los Angeles.
McQuilkin said that the agreement is currently in the hands of the State Water Board, which is compiling the previous terms and provisions of the LADWP’s water license and adding new terms and provisions under the settlement agreement. “That work is just about done, so we’re headed into a phase where the Board can issue a final agreement,” he said.
One of the primary features of the agreement is an LADWP modification to its Grant Dam facilities. Such a modification is necessary because the Los Angeles Aqueduct was never built with the intention of releasing water back into the Mono Basin, which is precisely what the agreement requires to restore Mono Lake’s tributary streams.
“The LADWP has actually jumped on this,” McQuilkin said. “They did drilling work in late fall [of 2013] to look at rock layers, and they currently have two designs [for the upgraded facilities].”
The only silver lining of the 18-year lake level low is, said McQuilkin, the proof that restoration work already done at Mono Lake is paying off. “Because of the  State Water Board mandate, the lake went up enough that now that it’s falling, it’s not endangering major resource areas,” he said.
At this point, McQuilkin added, “It’s all about next year … Our fingers are crossed for a better winter ahead.”