Mono Lake Committee Leadership Assert: A Balance Is Needed Between Urban Water Need and CA Ecological Preservation

Headshot of Martha Davis

As a result of one of the wettest winters on record, the State of California has recently eased some drought restrictions state-wide. In this VX News interview, Mono Lake Committee Executive Director Geoff McQuilkin and Board Member Martha Davis, along with Environmental Outreach Strategies President Adi Liberman, make the case that while this welcomed precipitation is a win for the state’s recent extreme drought, there still needs to be a conscious effort to preserve these gains made this year. In particular, this Mono Lake team of water experts argue that the State Water Resources Control Board needs to update its rules that are supposed to raise Mono Lake to the mandated ecological protection level while enabling LADWP to obtain future water from Mono Lake.

Geoff, can you begin by framing the challenge today of restoring Mono Lake to a sustainable and ecologically healthy level?


Geoff McQuilkin: Mono Lake is a barometer of California and Los Angeles’ commitment to environmental protection and providing water to people. It’s an ecological resource of state, national, and hemispheric importance for millions of migratory and nesting birds—and a special place for people who find beauty in its mysterious tufa towers and rejuvenation at the lake’s shore. Mono Lake is the place where the Public Trust Doctrine was decided by the California Supreme Court, who ruled the lake must be protected from the damage of excessive water diversions. It’s also the place where City of Los Angeles, the Mono Lake Committee, and all kinds of organizations committed to a plan that the State Water Board put into motion to restore the lake to a sustainable level and have a long-term provision of water to the city. 

The issue in 2023 is how we are doing with that plan? Our concerns and those of many other agencies and entities, including the Mono Lake Kutzadika’a Tribe and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, have been that what the State Board expected to happen in 20 years, in terms of returning the lake to a sustainable level to recover from the Mulholland-era excessive water diversions from the basin, hasn’t come to fruition. We need to get it implemented.


How did the multi-year drought—which devastated the water supply expectations of most of the West’s water managers—impact Mono Lake’s ecosystem?  


Geoff McQuilkin: Good question. Historically, the lake went down about 45 vertical feet because of the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power’s decades of diverting the lake’s tributary streams. It lost half of its volume and doubled in salinity, pushing the ecosystem to the edge of collapse and impacting the cultural values of the Kutzadika'a tribe and the local economy. 

The challenge is how to get the lake back up with a set of rules in place, not all the way to the natural level, but to the “public trust” sustainable and ecologically healthy level mandated by the State Water Board. The board's plan expected there to be drought years. The lake goes up and down naturally. The plan also anticipated the wet years. The key action needed is that when we get the rises in the lake level during the wet years, we preserve those gains and kind of ratchet back up to that long-term sustainable management level.

What we've seen is that when we've had wet years, like in 2017 or this year, we get a rise in the lake level, but continued diversions by the Department of Water and Power will chip away at that and you lose those gains in the subsequent normal to dry years that we all know will come. That's the issue right now. The Board had a formula for how to get there, which is not quite working, so it needs to be updated.


Compare the challenges of Mono Lake ecosystem with the challenges of Owens Lake, which is over a hundred miles away.


Geoff McQuilkin: For us, Owens Lake was always the cautionary tale of what Mono Lake might become if action wasn’t taken to protect the lake and its ecosystem and the resources here.

Owens Lake disappeared quickly once LA Aqueduct diversions began back in the early 20th century. With Mono Lake, we had a chance in the 1970s and 80s to make choices and make sure that Mono Lake didn't suffer that fate.

We do have some of the problems of Owens Lake here. For example, Mono’s  level has gone down so much it has exposed thousands of acres of alkali lakebed. As a result, you get dust storms blowing off the lakebed, just as they do with Owens Lake, that violate the Clean Air Act. These are toxic dust storms that are very unhealthy to breathe.

Mono Lake never hit salinities as extreme as Owens, so we still have a living ecosystem. Mono’s ecosystem is impaired, but we still have the chance to protect it for future generations. At the same time, we can help Los Angeles develop additional local water supplies that will meet the city’s water needs to assure sustainable amounts of water flow to Mono Lake.


Elaborate on the Water Board’s decades old decision that frames the Mono Lake’s Committee Challenge?


Martha Davis: In 1994, the Water Board, after a very extended set of legal hearings, came to a decision that the healthy level for Mono Lake was 6392 feet above sea level, on average. The City of Los Angeles joined the Mono Lake Committee in Sacramento to say they accepted this decision. They stood with us at a  press conference and announced  their support, hours before the Water Board voted to protect Mono Lake. The city accepted the decision in its entirety, in part, because the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation and the State of California made funding available to the City of Los Angeles to invest in water conservation and water recycling to make up for the reduced amount of water that Los Angeles would take from the lake. Those projects contributed significantly to LA's water resilience today, especially through water conservation.

 In terms of the actual operation of the decision, as Geoff described, the Water Board couldn't anticipate the weather conditions that we now face. In effect, they put together rules  that were intended to both allow LADWP to divert some water and assure the lake level would rise. It was set up with the assumption that the lake would continue rising until it reached the 6392-foot lake level. Once the lake level reached an elevation of 6392 feet, there would be greater flexibility for how much water DWP could take at that point.

What's actually happened is that climate change warped things. The frequency and length of the droughts were not anticipated. As a result, while LADWP has gotten every drop of water it was promised and more, Mono Lake has taken all the drought impacts. The Water Board never expected that. The rules that the Board had put together to share water between Mono Lake and Los Angeles didn’t work out the way they expected.

However, the Board anticipated that this rules problem might happen when they issued their 1994 decision. If lake levels didn’t rise as predicted, the Water Board said it would hold a hearing to check in on the progress that Mono Lake was making and determine whether the diversion rules might need to be adjusted to achieve the goal of protecting Mono Lake. The City of Los Angeles agreed to that as well.


Detail how the State Water Board has failed to step and protect the Mono Lake Ecosystem?


Martha Davis: Everybody watched and kept saying, “Well, surely the next few years will be wet and that will take care of the problem”. The City of Los Angeles and the Mono Lake Committee even agreed to wait a few extra years to see whether the situation would straighten itself out.

Instead, we found ourselves in the worst drought in a century. Instead of rising, the lake has shown us that even when you have a wet winter like 2017, the net gain is immediately eroded by the combination of continued diversions and the return of dry years. We can now see how the rules really don't work. We weren't able to keep the gains that the lake made, so we haven’t made real progress in reaching the 6392 protection level. It’s gone down so much so that now we have many of the same problems that led to the 1994 decision.       


We do this interview in March 2023.  There's been extensive snow this winter statewide, in the Sierras, and even in Los Angeles. Has this fortunate precipitation benefited the Mono Lake ecosystem?


Geoff McQuilkin: Well, it's a two-part answer. There has been an exceptional amount of snow in the Mono Basin this year, it's going to melt and the lake is going to rise several feet. That is a good thing.

However, the problem remains that the rules in place are not going to preserve those gains, unless the State Water Board gets back in there and makes adjustments using what we've learned in this 30-year period. 2017 is the illustration of that. It was a very wet year, and the lake went up four and a half feet. The lake then came back down and went into a crisis last year with the exposed land bridge allowing coyotes access to bird chicks and eggs on the nesting islands and high salinity violating federal and state standards. 


Pivoting: Geoff, some water interests outside of California assert that in Colorado River allocation negotiations California is being selfish about wanting to keep what it is already receiving from the Colorado River- rather than adapting to less. Are you encouraged and discouraged by in the negotiations to date?


Geoff McQuilkin: I'm encouraged by the adaptive management concept. It's hard and painful, but you see it work. That's what the State Board designed for Mono Lake. If Plan A isn't getting the lake up to the management level, we come back and write up Plan B. It's difficult on the Colorado, and that's getting hashed out, but you have to do it.


One lesson that the water managers presently in the Colorado River allocation negotiations might take from what happened with the decades old Mono Lake Agreement is that a Plan B never happens. The parties may have a dynamic agreement, but there’s little accountability.


Geoff McQuilkin: That's where politics are hard. The State Board did say in its Mono Lake decision that if the lake level doesn’t rise as intended, they “shall hold a hearing.” Getting that to happen is the topic of 2023. They held a workshop last month to gather information about this. I think they know it's necessary, but how do you get these things to become priorities amidst all the priorities of the State?

Here at Mono Lake, the State Board is carrying out the constitutional requirements for Public Trust protection that exist in California. The California Supreme Court said the Trust requirements must be incorporated into water rights at Mono Lake as well as other water resources. The State Water Board ruled on the lake level that delivers public trust protection, and that obligation remains. But you're right, it can be challenging to get the issue onto the front burner.


Adi Liberman: I think that one of the most difficult challenges that water managers have throughout the State and throughout the region is how to strike the right balance between agriculture, cities, and the environment. It's a constant struggle because the conditions are changing. That's the struggle we face and, hopefully, our water policymakers will rise to that challenge and avoid abandoning one of the three legs of the stool.


Martha Davis: I have another piece of the story, and I think you know what I’m going to say.

We have so many opportunities to develop local water supplies from resources that we have not always appreciated, such as using our water supplies much more efficiently. Water conservation is now one of LA’s greatest achievements. Frankly, by helping secure funds for LA’s water conservation efforts, the Mono Lake Committee was an early participant in the city’s successful water conservation program.

Another opportunity is recycled water. We’ve got many examples in Southern California of brilliant projects, including one led by the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, where treated recycled water is being used for groundwater recharge. Essentially, we are taking water that had historically been thrown away, treating it, and turning it into a new reliable supply.

Parts of Southern California, particularly in Los Angeles, also have extraordinary groundwater basins that were never taken care of properly. We're still paying the price tag right now to clean up the East Valley, so that we can make use of this water supply.        

This has not been an easy time for water agencies. All these changes are happening around us. I'm sympathetic, as I've sat in the seat of a water agency manager, and I know how hard it is to plan for an uncertain water future.

I also know that our choices can't involve the kinds of tradeoffs that we often fall back into, like pitching urban areas versus agricultural areas or urban and agricultural areas against the environment. If we're going to have a world that makes any sense to our children, and those who will come in the future, we need a world with reliable water supplies, which also means we need to protect the places where the water comes from.

What we can't afford is to turn challenges like Mono Lake’s protection into a tradeoff where, somehow, one need is more important than another. I've always believed that we can make better choices and ensure that places like Mono Lake are protected while we solve the real water problems in front of us. Even in our own backyards, we can make better use of the water we’ve ignored, we've neglected, or we've wasted.


Let's close by asking what the Mono Lake stakeholders want to happen this spring?


Geoff McQuilkin: Mono Lake advocates accepted the Water Board decision as the resolution and the path forward to save Mono Lake. The City of Los Angeles also accepted it. Now, we just want to get it implemented, and the next steps are up to the State Water Board.

I think the wet year gives us some acceleration, some momentum, and some sense that the lake can rise even faster than maybe anyone thought just a few months ago–which is great. The State Water Board will need adjust the stream diversion levels and the way things are operated so we can be sure that both Mono Lake and Los Angeles receive the benefits promised by the 1994 decision. Once Mono Lake rises to the Board-ordered protection level, it will be a remarkable example of achieving balance that considers urban water supply and water resource ecological protection—both in written plans and in the real world out at the shores of the lake itself.

“Mono Lake is a barometer of California and Los Angeles' commitment to environmental protection and providing water to people. The challenge is how to get the lake back up with a set of rules in place, not all the way to the natural level, but to the ‘public trust’ sustainable and ecologically healthy level mandated by the State Water Board.” -Geoff McQuilkin