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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California water board urged to declare emergency at Mono Lake

"If not Mono Lake, then where?" environmentalists and tribal groups asked at a workshop discussing California's ancient salty lake.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California authorities face renewed pressure to preserve the valuable salty waters of the Mono Lake -- as despite recent rainfall, a historic drought and demands from the Los Angeles area have depleted it.

In a workshop Wednesday, the state Water Resources Control Board discussed Mono Lake's current conditions amid the impacts of severe drought and ongoing diversions.

Mono Lake is an ancient, naturally saline lake at the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, with a surface area of 70 square miles. It is fed by several rivers and hosts a unique ecosystem and critical habitat for millions of migratory birds. That includes California gulls, whose nesting population on lake islands has steadily declined for the last 40 years due to low water levels, increasing coyote populations and human interference. 

Mono Lake seen from above in California. (Department of Fish and Wildlife via Courthouse News)

The Mono Lake Committee sent a letter in December urging the board to temporarily restrict the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power diversions from the lake's rivers until the water level reaches 6,384 feet, to prevent predators from accessing a land bridge and threatening nesting gulls. The group also wants the state to provide a drought buffer and reduce salinity levels. 

There is still a limit to how much water LA can draw from Mono Lake without harming migratory birds and the lake's delicate ecosystem. A 1994 State Water Resources Board order, Water Right Decision 1631, prevents the surface level of the lake from dropping below 6,377 feet and includes plans for stream restoration — forcing the city to explore new ways to get water for its 3.9 million residents. 

The order was also designed to gradually return the lake levels to 6,392 feet, which has never happened according to state water rights division engineer Sam Boland-Brien. Until the recent winter storms in January, the lake was approaching its lowest point in decades, nearing records set in the 1980s and ‘90s. The lake last reached the set cutoff point for diversions, 6,388 feet, in 2017. 

Mono Lake Committee members Geoffrey McQuilkin and Ryan Burnett said the state water board should implement stream diversions before April 2024, to increase lake levels to 6,384 feet and protect nesting gulls from coyotes. They said the tribal communities on the land — including the Mono people, the Kutzadika'a and a Northern Paiute band, the Kucadɨkadɨ — must be “meaningfully involved” in all planning proceedings. 

McQuilkin said the lake was at “perilously low” levels this past September. While the recent storms should help the lake recover this year, "at the same time, we have all seen this movie before," he said.

Noting how the lake was rapidly depleted by diversions after the last wet winter in 2017, he told the state to “Make sure we’re not back here next spring, or the spring after.”

Burnett pointed to the projected disaster at Utah's Great Salt Lake — predicted to dry up within five years — and how gulls have largely moved to the south San Francisco area to use artificial salt pond habitats, becoming a nuisance. He said Mono Lake is the most important place in the state for gull breeding.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife environmental program manager Alisa Ellsworth and senior engineer Robert Hughes agreed the state should act this year to help preserve current water levels and create a buffer against future drought. 

Hughes said that if current trends of increasing water levels due to recent storms hold, the lake elevation could remain above the threshold of concern.  

“This is great news for the gulls, provided we can preserve the gains," he said.

The shores of Mono Lake in California contain valuable deposits of insect larva and salt. (Kutzadika'a and Dean Tonenna via Courthouse News)

Kutzadika'a representatives Dean Tonenna and Charlotte Lange said that as the land’s indigenous people, they have always relied on the lake’s food sources and medicinal properties. 

Tonenna said traditional harvesting areas “have been severely impacted” but that concern has not been addressed by the state because the tribe has not been included in decades of negotiations. He said this is part of the water board’s establishing of programs that perpetuate inequities based on race, which the board has acknowledged.

“We look at this as an emergency, it’s been in an emergency for decades,” Tonenna said. “The tribe really feels that we’ve been left out of this (1994) decision.”

But Los Angeles’s Department of Water and Power assistant general manager Anselmo Collins said the Los Angeles aqueduct is vital for serving millions of people and producing green hydroelectric energy, and the department has reduced flows from the Mono basin by 85%. 

He said diversions will not resume until fall, and the county cannot handle Mono Lake supplies being diverted in such a fragile period of drought. He also said gulls are primarily threatened by lower availability of their major food source, the brine shrimp, and are predators for a local endangered species, the snowy plover.

Southern California Water Coalition executive director Charles Wilson said he thought that the fact that recent storms raising lake waters means “there is no clear need for an emergency declaration.”

But many public commenters said the state should hold a hearing to discuss that kind of emergency, including any change in diversions or other steps to preserve lake levels. 

“We hope the state water board will take this ecological crisis seriously … to raise the lake to levels that buffer against these climate extreme," Ryan Carle, a conservation coordinator with the nonprofit ecosystem research organization Oikonos, said.

Marc Del Piero said LA received millions in funds to properly manage the land, adding, “The excuses that we’ve heard today appear to be intended to obfuscate LA’s failure to be a good steward of the resources.”

The state water board will have to give public notice before scheduling any new review hearing this year.

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Categories / Environment, Government, Regional

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