Mono Lake

Underdogs and Water: How The Fight To Save Mono Lake Changed California


The fight for Mono Lake pitted a handful of small conservation groups against a seemingly invincible Los Angeles DWP. What happened next forever altered California’s water landscape.

In 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) began diverting water from the key tributaries feeding Mono Lake, sending the water 350 miles south to a thirsty, fast-growing Los Angeles.

By the early 1980s, the volume of Mono lake had fallen by half and the water’s salinity had doubled. The world-class brown trout fisheries in Rush and Lee Vining Creeks had disappeared. Toxic alkali dust storms blew up from Mono’s exposed salt flats.

Ducks and geese — nesting on islands suddenly accessible to land-based predators — saw their populations fall by 99%. Even the brine shrimp population was in free fall.

In simple terms, Mono Lake was dying.

To preserve Mono Basin, Conservation groups like CalTrout, Audubon and the Mono Lake Committee faced off against the politically powerful LADWP, which had already drained the Owens Valley.

To many, the fight seemed hopeless.

Fast forward from the 80s to August 27, 2013, when — after decades of litigation and scientific study — the LADWP board voted to accept a negotiated agreement specifying flow regimes and restoration programs for Mono Lake and Mono’s tributary creeks, stamping an exclamation point on one of California’s biggest environmental victories.

What happened between the low point of 1982 and the agreement of 2013 is the stuff of legend; a string of legal victories that not only rewatered an entire basin, but created legal precedents that protect waterways throughout the state.

In California, Water’s for Fighting

Mono Lake is an ancient sea that has no outlet; water in the basin runs to the lake but doesn’t drain from there. The result is a unique, visually stunning body of water with a salinity higher than that of the ocean.

Enter the LADWP, who diverted the water from Mono’s tributary streams and sent it over 350 miles south. By 1982, these diversions had dropped Mono Lake’s level 45 vertical feet and collapsed the ecosystem.

As early as the late 1970s, Audubon and the Mono Lake Committee tried to force LADWP to put some water back in key tributaries by invoking the Public Trust Doctrine.

CalTrout co-founder and former Director Richard May noted that “They were trying to leverage the public trust doctrine, but they weren’t making much of an impression on the courts or LADWP.”

In the early 1980s, CalTrout stepped into the fight, arguing that a long-ignored, never-litigated portion of the state’s Fish & Game code (Section 5937 required LADWP to leave enough water below its dams to keep fish populations “in good condition.”

May said “Section 5937 prohibits dam owners from just drying up rivers, and it represented a legal manifestation of the Public Trust Doctrine, at least in terms of how dams were operated.”

It was the key to preserving Mono Lake. However, applying 5937 in a lawsuit seemed risky; the law had long been ignored. In fact, in 1951, Attorney General Pat Brown had even declared 5937 “advisory only,” refusing to allow the Department of Fish and Game to invoke it.

The stage was set for a confrontation.

The First Big Win: CalTrout 1

In 1985, the lawsuit which would eventually be known as CalTrout I pitted the public’s right to a fishery (that existed prior to LADWP’s diversions) against LADWP’s claims to all the water in Rush Creek.

In fact, in 1984, LADWP announced that after two wet years — where water had once again flowed in Rush Creek — they planned to dry it up once again. Agitated, the judge in the case issued a restraining order against LADWP.

Then, on August 22, in a landmark decision, Judge Otis threw out LADWP’s claim to all the water in Rush Creek, and — invoking 5937 — ruled that the state-granted licenses to LADWP weren’t legal.

This was big victory for Mono Lake, but an even bigger victory for fish; a court had finally recognized the legal power of Section 5937. Suddenly, dam operators were legally bound to leave enough water flowing to keep fish populations “in good condition” — a legal requirement which has become one of the most powerful tools available to fisheries groups.

More Victories

Throughout the rest of the 1980s, lawsuits were filed to extend the protections offered to Rush Creek to Lee Vining Creek, Parker Creek, Walker Creek and even the Owens River Gorge.

In 1990 — when it became clear the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) was dragging its feet in amending LADWP’s water licenses — CalTrout returned to the Third District Court of Appeals, which ordered that the historic fisheries on all four Mono tributaries be restored immediately.

This became known as the CalTrout II ruling, and it paved the way for the historic 1994 SWRCB decision that not only amended LADWP’s water licenses, but also mandated restoration efforts for fish and fowl.

The fight wasn’t over, but — astonishingly — it appeared that a pair of tiny conservation groups had stood up to a politically connected, legally potent LADWP — and won an unlikely series of victories.

Rush Creek, Lee Vining Creeks to Flourish?

In 1998, four years after the CalTrout II decision, scientists embarked on a series of decade-long studies to determine what was needed to restore Mono’s tributaries, and in 2010, they delivered their final recommendations.

LADWP initially objected to those recommendations — raising the specter of more lawsuits and delays — but rather than see the process bogged down in litigation, CalTrout Eastern Sierra Regional Manager Mark Drew engaged LADWP in a facilitated mediation process.

The result was the historic August 27, 2013 agreement between LADWP, CalTrout, the CA Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Mono Lake Committee.

It provides for a laundry list of restoration activities and also allows for Rush and Lee Vining Creeks to once again become the “world-class” fisheries Field & Stream magazine said they were in the 1930s.

“While the conditions of these of Mono Lake tributaries have improved since their low point in the early 1980s, more work needs to be done to create lasting improvements” said CalTrout Executive Director Jeff Thompson.

When asked if he was happy with the new agreement, Richard May — CalTrout’s President during the initial phases of the Mono Basin fight — said “Sure I am. I’m fine with the idea of world-class brown trout fisheries in Rush and Lee Vining. I’m even happier with the precedent we set, that 5937 is the manifestation of the public trust doctrine when it comes to the operation of dams in California, like in the San Joaquin River.”

The CalTrout press release from that day reads:

The settlement agreement lays out the details of a plan to implement several actions, including a significant investment in upgrading Grant Dam and the subsequent delivery of long-term flows, an extensive monitoring program, oversight and bringing to closure earlier requirements stemming from the 1994 decision and subsequent Restoration Orders from the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB).

What it doesn’t say is that this agreement may signal the end of one of California’s most-significant environmental battles.

In the 1980s, the idea that a pair of relatively small conservation groups like CalTrout and the Mono Lake Committee — backed by the National Audubon Society — could challenge the all-powerful Los Angeles Department of Water and Power seemed unthinkable.

Yet decades later, the victory for Mono Lake — and the state’s fishermen — appears to be at hand.

Richard May — a witness to both the beginning and the end of the fight — said simply “After all these years, it’s gratifying. It’s really gratifying.”