California’s struggle to secure its water supply is a struggle older than the state itself.
It played out during the Gold Rush and defines modern San Francisco and Los Angeles. It created divisions between North and South, East and West. Moving water from the Sacramento Bay Delta to San Jose and Southern California, from the Colorado River to the Los Angeles Basin, and from the Sierra Nevada to the Bay Area consumes endless political energy and mountains of literal energy.
Through it all, Mono Lake is a tiny data point, just a dot on the state’s vast water map. Why is Mono Lake suddenly attracting attention in water circles?
A group of environmentalists and Native American tribes — the Kutsadika Paiute have lived in the Mono basin for centuries — are fighting for that water, arguing that Los Angeles, which began diverting streams from the lake in 1941, should give up its rights. Let the lake be That would allow Mono Lake’s surface level to rise, but it would also face a more ancient evaporation problem.
As with all things California water-related, there is a lot of history behind this struggle. That early history doesn’t reflect well on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s stewardship of Mono Lake. After receiving permission to draw water from the area in 1940, the DWP did so with gusto. From 1941 to 1982, the lake level dropped 45 feet.
In 1994, the State Water Board stopped that, limiting the amount DWP could take in any given year. In later years, the lake slowly recovered, although its condition remained fragile.
Ironically, the argument for forcing Los Angeles to end diversions from the Mono basin now rests largely on the fact that, since 1994, it hasn’t withdrawn that much water anyway. So if it is already prevented from taking in more, why not stop taking in all this water? It seems like common sense to lawyers; For the DWP, it feels like being punished for being successful.
Granted, in the grand scheme of things, the amount DWP takes from the Mono Lake basin is tiny (it doesn’t take water from the lake itself, because it’s brackish; DWP gets its water from the four streams that feed the lake). Today, the DWP withdraws no more than 16,000 acre feet a year, and it often takes much less than that.
Compared to Los Angeles’ overall usage, that’s paltry. The city uses about 500,000 acre-feet of water per year, so even in a big year the water from the mono watershed does not exceed 3% of the total.
However, this is enough to supply about 45,000 homes, or 200,000 people, in the densely populated areas of Los Angeles (San Francisco, with its population and few gardens, extends an acre-foot of water to about eight homes).
And the birds. Mono Lake is an important station for migratory birds. If the lake level drops too low, it exposes the land bridges that connect the lake’s main nesting island to land, allowing coyotes to cross the bridge and disrupting birds. Maintaining lake levels to protect the islands becomes a major priority.
And yet, despite recent droughts — and diversions by the DWP — the water hasn’t dropped to levels that have been creating coyote bridges for decades. Lake levels today are 10 feet higher than they were in 1981, according to the DWP.
“There is nothing remotely like a land bridge at the moment,” Martin Adams, the DWP’s general manager and chief engineer, said in an interview this week.
On the subject of conservation, I asked Adams if the agency’s water rights in the Mono Lake area would be waived if the DWP could find 16,000 more acre feet through conservation.
His answer was simple: no.
DWP’s first priority for conservation is to cut water imports from expensive and environmentally inferior alternatives. “We’ll buy some water from the Metropolitan Water District,” he said, if a sudden windstorm permits.
It makes good economic sense. Metropolitan water is expensive — about $750 an acre — because it must be shipped from Northern California through the state water project or from the Colorado River, where other states and Native American tribes have fought for their rights.
But it’s not just about money. There are also environmental implications, and Martin’s preferences make good environmental sense. Metropolitan water has to be transported over long distances, and as a result, it requires large amounts of electrical power (water is heavy and very difficult to move upstream). In fact, moving water from point to point is one of the largest uses of electricity in California.
Because generating electricity is one of the main contributors to carbon emissions, moving water is bad for the climate.
In contrast, William Mulholland’s genius project, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, brings water to Los Angeles from the Mono and Owens Valleys by gravity alone. In fact, it produces less electricity as it flows south. This is the opposite of expending energy to pump water up the mountains from the Bay Delta or the Colorado.
Therefore, economically, it does not make sense for the DWP to stop supplying Mono Lake. The environmental costs will be mixed: It may enhance the habitat of birds that are not currently endangered, but it will do so at the cost of contributing to climate change.
I ran all of this by Jeff Keitlinger, the former general manager of the Metropolitan Water District and one of California’s top water experts. Kightlinger doesn’t have a dog in this fight. If anything, DWP’s decision to relinquish Mono Lake water rights will help Kightlinger’s former agency, as DWP may be forced to buy more water from Southern California’s giant importers.
However, Kightlinger sympathized with the DWP on the matter.
Yes, he said, there are problems with birds, but they seem mostly under control — no land bridges endanger nesting areas. Yes, there are benefits to conservation, but Keitlinger agreed with Adams that it’s hard to see why the DWP would give up a source of fresh water in the eastern Sierra, where it gets water for free, instead of spending more money. More energy is used to buy from the metropolitan.
“All these resource decisions involve trade-offs,” he said. “I hear no compelling argument in this case.”
Can it be changed? Of course – if the lake’s water level starts to drop again, the birds will be at risk. Otherwise, prolonged drought means that even modest withdrawals of DWP from area streams can disrupt supply to the lake, causing it to spiral downward.
If history is any guide, this fight will be a long one. For the time being, a very wet winter has allowed it to remain undisturbed. But it hasn’t gone away.
Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author, and educator. Covered government and politics as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist for the Los Angeles Times for 25 years. He teaches at UCLA and co-founded Blueprint Magazine.