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Newsletter and Technical Publications
Freshwater Management Series No. 3

Proceedings of International Symposium on Building Partnerships
between Citizens and Local governments for Sustainable Lake Management


Heidi Hopkins1 and Peter Kavounas2

1Eastern Sierra Policy Director, Mono Lake Committee, P.O.Box 29, Lee Vining, CA 93541, USA
E-mail :
2Environment Issues Group Manager, Dept. of Water & Power, LA Municipality Rm 1469, 111 N. Hope St., P.O.Box 51111, Los Angeles, CA 90012, USA
E-mail :


The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power started taking water from the Mono Basin in 1941. The Water Department took water from the streams feeding Mono Lake approximately 350 miles (550 km) south to Los Angeles for urban consumption. Decades of water diversions caused harm to Mono Lake and its streams; the Mono Lake Committee was formed in 1978 to protect the environment in the basin. Beginning in the late 1970s, the Mono Lake Committee and the Water Department clashed over the impacts of the water diversions. After two decades of legal battles each group's mission has broadened and their relationship has evolved; today this relationship relies on mutual respect for each other's mission, and good faith efforts by both sides. The two groups are able to discuss restoration issues using science as a common basis and work to resolve their disagreements, thus avoiding the need for intervention by the courts. The ability to constructively discuss differences and look for mutually satisfying solutions is important for further building trust. The collaboration has produced many benefits by harnessing the strengths of each partner under the mutual goal of restoration of the streams and waterfowl habitat in the Mono Basin.


The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power started diverting water from the Mono Basin in 1941. The Mono Lake Committee was formed in 1978 to protect the Mono Basin ecosystem after decades of water diversions had caused harm to Mono Lake and its streams. After nearly two decades of litigation, both groups have developed a mutual respect for each other's mission and now work in good faith to balance ecosystem restoration efforts with water diversions for urban use.

The Mono Lake Committee (MLC)

The Mono Lake Committee is a non-profit citizens' group dedicated to protecting and restoring the Mono Basin ecosystem; educating the public about Mono Lake and the environmental impacts of excessive water use; and promoting cooperative solutions that protect Mono Lake and meet real water needs without transferring environmental problems to other areas. Since 1978, MLC efforts to protect Mono Lake from excessive water diversions to Los Angeles have included litigation, legislation, cooperation, and (most importantly) public support. The MLC now has 15,000 members world-wide. Mono Lake and the streams that feed it are shown in Figure 1, taken in the summer of 2001.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (Water Department)

The City of Los Angeles's Water Department was established in 1902 when the City's population was approximately 100,000. The City now includes about 3.8 million people in a 1,200 km2 area.

The Water Department has built a number of projects over the years to ensure an adequate water supply for the City, including: completing the 400-km Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 to deliver surface water from the Owens River and its tributaries to the City; extending the Aqueduct approximately 160 km to the Mono Basin in 1940 to capture water from four streams that feed into Mono Lake; and adding a second barrel to the Aqueduct in 1970 to increase exports from the Mono Basin and to accommodate pumped groundwater. Figure 2 shows the Los Angeles Aqueduct system.

In addition to its own projects, in 1928 the Water Department helped form the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to procure additional water supplies from the Colorado River. The Metropolitan Water District completed the Colorado River Aqueduct in 1940, and also purchases water from the California Aqueduct, built in 1970, to meet the needs of 15 million people in Southern California. These water supply facilities are also shown in Figure 2.

The Los Angeles City Council is comprised of 15 publicly elected officials and has oversight of all the City Departments including the Water Department, which is controlled by a five-member Board of Commissioners.

Figure 1: Mono Lake watershed

Figure 2: Los Angeles and Southern California water supply facilities

State and Federal Agencies, and NGOs

A number of other organisations have been involved with the lengthy dispute over the years. The most important ones are introduced here since they played a role in the overall resolution of issues.

The California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) is a state agency with the mission to ensure the highest reasonable quality for waters of the State, while allocating those waters to achieve the optimum balance of beneficial uses.

The mission of the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) is to manage the State's diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources (and the habitats upon which they depend) both for their ecological value and for public use and enjoyment.

The United States Forest Service (USFS) is a federal agency charged with sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.

California Trout's mission is to protect and restore wild trout, native steelhead, and the waters they inhabit throughout California, and to create high-quality angling opportunities for public enjoyment.

The National Audubon Society's mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems - primarily focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats - for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity.


Mono Lake, a natural saline lake whose level fluctuates, is currently 1945.5 meters (6382.8 feet) above sea level; its volume is approximately 3.2 x 109 cubic meters, and its surface area is approximately 18,400 hectares. It contains chlorides, carbonates, and sulfates - a chloridecarbonate- sulfate 'triple water' lake. It is alkaline, with a pH of 10, and its salinity is approximately 80 g/l (almost three times saltier than the ocean).

Mono Lake and its surrounding basin encompass one of California's richest natural areas. The basin encompasses 14 different ecological zones; has over 1000 plant species, roughly 400 recorded vertebrate species, and feeds millions of migratory birds within its watershed. Compared to other equal volumes of water and based on the sheer mass of living organisms - the brine shrimp population alone is into the trillions - Mono Lake stands out as one of the most productive aquatic ecosystems in North America.

First Steps to Protection

To meet the growing needs of the City of Los Angeles, the Water Department began diverting water from four of the five major tributary streams that feed Mono Lake in 1941. When the lake level began to drop because of these diversions (see Figure 3), vast alkali dust flats were exposed, the islands where birds nest became connected to the mainland (see Figure 4), and the populations of brine shrimp and alkali flies (on which millions of migratory birds depend) were threatened.

A dedicated group of students and scientists formed the Mono Lake Committee in 1978 to save and protect Mono Lake. They utilized science, law, public education, and partnerships with community groups in Los Angeles and organizations such as the National Audubon Society and California Trout, to win protection for Mono Lake.

Figure 3: Historic Mono Lake elevation

Figure 4: 1979 Photograph of Mono Lake Islands and North Shore

Interim steps in securing this protection included the noteworthy accomplishments of: (1) a precedent-setting 'public trust' decision by the California Supreme Court that became the legal underpinning for future protection of the lake; and (2) successfully attaining numerous protective designations at Mono Lake, including: the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve, Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, and Outstanding National Resource Water designations.

Initially, the Water Department's approach to the newly formed MLC was fairly one-sided. The State of California experienced tremendous growth in the 20th century and had adopted a water management strategy of allocating this resource to meet the test of 'the greatest good for the greatest number'. For the most part, the SWRCB allocated water on a 'first-in-time, first-inright' allocation system with little regard for environmental consequences. The Water Department, in accordance with this philosophy, rejected all suggestions that it should curtail any of its water diversions to protect the environment. The decision by the California Supreme Court to protect the 'public trust values' of Mono Lake, however, marked a significant departure from the way water rights had been viewed in California until that time.

In 1994, based on the Court's decision, the SWRCB ordered the Water Department to curtail its diversions to meet the water needs of Mono Lake and the City of Los Angeles. This compromise would still allow the City to receive some water - but less than it used to - and raise the level of Mono Lake, although it would still be 25 feet lower than before the City's water diversions began. However, the lake would still be high enough to limit dust storms, maintain a separation between the islands and the mainland, and generally provide the kind of productive habitat formerly used by migrating ducks and other waterbirds. The SWRCB's focus on restoring natural processes included the particularly important peak flows of the spring season. The streams, while intercepted by dams, should function like natural streams.

As part of this effort to protect the lake, the MLC lobbied throughout the 1980s for both state and federal legislation that would create funding to help the Water Department develop in-city water recycling facilities and to pay for water conservation programs. In 1989, the MLC was instrumental in enacting California state legislation to create a $60 million fund for the Water Department to use for conservation and water reclamation. In 1992, the MLC also helped secure federal funds for water reclamation. These facilities and programs help replace water that had been diverted from the Mono Basin in the past, and that now is being used to restore Mono Lake and its tributary streams.


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