With the current California drought well into its fourth year, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is preparing for a significantly decreased water supply from the Mono Basin for the first time since 1997.
After decades of litigation, the California State Water Resources Control Board’s 1994 Decision regulates the amount of water LADWP can take from tributary streams based on the water level of Mono Lake. If the lake is above 6,380 feet above see level, it can divert up to 16,000 acre feet of water to customers in Southern California. If the Lake drops below that level, they are only allowed 4,500 acre feet. Measurements taken by both LADWP and the Mono Lake Committee on February 1, showed the Mono Lake water level to be 6,379 ft.
“Unless some miracle happens” before the April 1 reading, LADWP will only be allowed to take 4,500 acre feet this year for the first time since 1997, said Lisa Cutting, the Eastern Policy Director for the Mono Lake Committee.
By miracle, consider this explanation from Greg Reis, Information and Restoration Specialist for the Mono Lake Committee:
“At the current surface area of 43,000 acres, it would take a bit more than 43,000 acre-feet to raise it one foot. That could be 12 inches of rain on the lake, or a rain-on-snow flood could do it with less rain as runoff fills in … But one foot would exceed any February-March rise seen in the last 20 years. The closest: .9 feet in 1995, and .8 feet in 1996, and .6 feet in 1998. Those were wet winters. I wouldn’t put money on it because the unexpected always happens with California climate and weather, but I’m 99% sure it won’t make it.”
The history of LADWP water diversions from Mono Lake tributary streams is long, beginning in the early 20th century when William Mullholland, a Los Angeles civil engineer, began systematically purchasing property in the Eastern Sierra, which gave him the water rights to all the tributary streams flowing into Mono Lake. LADWP began diverting water from these streams 350 miles down to Los Angeles in 1941, virtually cutting off all freshwater contribution to Mono Lake.
Noticing the significant change in water levels and the subsequent environmental effect, David Gaines and some other scientists formed the Mono Lake Committee in 1978 as a grass-roots organization that began fighting the LADWP in order to restore Mono Lake. In 1982, Mono Lake hit an all time low of 6,372 feet above sea level, dropping 45 vertically feet since the 1941 level of 6,417 feet.
In 1989, a California Superior Court injunction prohibited LADWP from diverting any water from the Mono Basin. After the 1994 decision, they began taking 4,500 acre feet in 1995 and since 1997, the lake level has been above the 6,380 feet threshold, allowing the LADWP to divert 16,000 acre feet a year.
“We’ll be able to provide water [this year], but not as much out of the Eastern Sierra as we have historically. It will be more expensive and we’ll kick in water conservation efforts,” said Clarence Martin, Assistant Aqueduct Manager for LADWP.
The Department is looking to purchase more water from the Metropolitan District in Central California or take it from the Colorado River, which will “affect other cities and towns,” Martin continued. He admitted it will put extra pressure on the Department this year but said, “It is what it is. It’s part of a court order and we have to abide by it.”
“We always expected fluctuations up and down depending on the snow years,” Cutting said. “The compelling thing is that the State Water Board also recognized it. By having these safeguards in place, it protects Mono Lake and it’s eventual path to management levels.”
Cutting also just received the Mono Basin snow surveys, which show the snowpack water content is 23 percent of average. “It depends on February and March snowfall, but it could drop below 15 percent,” she said.
In a press release dated February 3, Mammoth Community Water District (MCWD) also reported significant drop in the Mammoth Pass snowpack, measuring only 18 percent of average on January 29. Irene Yamashita, MCWD public affairs, reported the data on February 3 shows 21 percent, with 1.3 inches of water accumulating within a few days.
MCWD announced increased conservation efforts in light of the recent data. “Our customers did a tremendous job reducing water use and investing in conservation measures in 2014, but with the continuing drought, we’ll all need to step up our efforts in 2015,” said Patrick Hayes, MCWD’s General Manager in the press release. “Although we’re only halfway through the precipitation months, and we may have a fantastic February or miracle March, we’re forecasting continued shortages. I ask that customers take extra care not to waste water.
The MCWD Board will consider raising water restrictions from Level 1 to Level 2 at its regular board meeting February 19.