Mono Lake Believers Bring L.A. to Its Knees

Los Angeles Times
Sept. 24, 1989


Tourists come and go from the homey Mono Lake visitor center and store here on the west shore without having any hint of the sophisticated public relations war being waged on Los Angeles in the cluttered back rooms. A staff of eight -- backed by computers, fax machines and a yearly budget of $700,000, plus a Yale-educated director and five more operatives in Los Angeles -- alerts the world to any threats against the bright blue saline lake in the eastern Sierra Nevada. They cajole magazines into running articles on the lake, lead tours and sell Mono Lake coffee mugs and T-shirts.

In the process, the Mono Lake Committee has amassed enough legal and political muscle to force the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power -- a powerful presence in the eastern Sierra -- to its knees. Legislation signed Saturday by Gov. George Deukmejian elevates the Mono Lake Committee's blue-jean clad activists to nearly equal status with Los Angeles in deciding the fate of the city's once-sacred rights to the water that flows naturally down four streams and into the primordial lake, one of the oldest on the continent.

The bill marks a high point for the group, which recently has racked up victory after victory in its battle to reduce the amount of water Los Angeles takes from the Mono Lake streams.

The committee began humbly in 1978 as an idea of the late David Gaines, a thin, bearded science student and bird lover. He regarded Los Angeles as an interloper bent on killing the scenic lake. For 40 years the city had dammed the stream flow and sent it south to Los Angeles by aqueduct. Denied any fresh water in most years, the lake had dropped 40 feet, exposing 21 square miles of lake bottom.

As the water level dropped the salinity nearly doubled, threatening to upset a delicate and prehistoric ecosystem. Thousands of California gulls, grebes and other migratory birds feed on brine flies and brine shrimp, which also are harvested commercially as food for tropical fish. Led by Gaines, the group managed to bring the isolated lake's threatened demise to world attention. They complained that the lowering water exposed nesting gulls to danger, including from coyotes who crossed a formerly submerged land bridge to Negit Island, one of two large islands.

Before long the lake was pictured on the cover of Life magazine and featured in National Geographic and Sports Illustrated. The National Audubon Society took a key role in the fight to halt the evaporation of the lake, filing the main lawsuit that now threatens to strip Los Angeles of its 50-year-old water rights.

The DWP, target of most of the Mono Lake Committee's barbs, at first tried to ignore Gaines and his band of graduate students, activists and summer interns. Only recently have city officials acknowledged the group's triumphs. "They have been a well-organized, effective group for a long time," conceded Duane Georgeson, DWP assistant general manager. "They've done a pretty good job mobilizing public opinion."

The group has publicized Mono Lake so widely that the U.S. Forest Service estimates more than 250,000 people visited last year. More than 80,000 -- including thousands of Germans and Australians, drawn by extensive magazine coverage -- stopped into the committee's visitors' center on the main street in the town of Lee Vining. More than 18,000 members pay $20 a year to belong, said assistant director Betsy Reifsnider. About 40% come from the Bay Area and California's north coast, where "Save Mono Lake" bumper stickers are a common sight. One-third come from Southern California, the rest from Sierra counties, the Central Valley and out of state.

More than half the $700,000 annual budget -- up from $250,000 in 1984 -- is donated by members. The rest comes from foundation grants, sales at the store and fund-raising events, including adventure trips and an annual auction of fine wines. More than $80,000 was raised last month in pledges to bicyclists who rode from DWP headquarters in Los Angeles to the lake. Apparently, selling the lake's charms has not proven difficult. The Mono Lake landscape is stark to some, the essence of California's physical beauty to many others.

A 65-square-mile puddle of blue on the edge of a desert plain 6,000 feet above sea level, the lake is battered by desert heat in summer and freezing winter winds that swirl clouds of alkali dust not advisable for breathing. Mark Twain spent time on the larger of two islands, Paoha Island, half of which is owned by the city of Los Angeles.

On the shore, millions of brine flies keep up a constant buzz, kicking up in waist-high hordes when intruders come near. Swimmers can float in the water -- salty enough to sting the eyes -- and risk encounters with black, thigh-deep mud on some parts of the shore.

Views from the lake surface include the steep face of the High Sierra rising above 13,000 feet to the west. Even higher peaks of the White Mountains loom east across the desert. To the south lie prehistoric volcanic craters and obsidian domes, and an eerie valley inundated in pumice that is part of the DWP's huge eastern Sierra land holdings.

Tufa towers, columns of hardened salts and minerals, rise in places along the shore. The towers formed under water and were exposed by the dropping water level, becoming one of the lake's scenic lures. In 1981, the committee claimed its first major victory, convincing state lawmakers to establish a tufa reserve.

Congress later designated the entire lake a national scenic area. The committee also managed to persuade the California Department of Transportation to post an official highway sign pointing tourists to the group's privately run visitor center.

Committee pressure also helped secure state money for studies that have backed up the group's central contention -- that nesting birds, especially California gulls, were endangered by the dropping water level. Most of the studies -- including those by a state task force, the National Academy of Sciences and the forest service -- urged that the lake level be raised and kept at a higher level to ensure that the lake's birds survive. "They used to say the environmentalists were crying wolf about Mono Lake," said Martha Davis, committee executive director. "They don't say that any more."

Gaines and another staff member, Don Oberlin, were killed in a January, 1988, car crash near here. Sally Gaines, his wife, is still co-chair of the group with Ed Groswiler, a former congressional aide who is an official of Pacific Power & Light, an Oregon utility company. But the major force is Davis, a 35-year-old Stanford graduate who also holds a Yale masters degree in forest science. She was a Marin County parks commissioner before joining the group in 1984. "As an environmental group (the committee) very wisely recognized early on that it wouldn't work to argue whether Los Angeles has the rights to eastern Sierra water," Davis said. "We haven't tried to turn back the clock. The focus has always been on protecting Mono Lake."

One tactic has been to mount pressure on the city through court suits, which have clearly started to tilt in favor of lake preservation over Los Angeles' water rights. The group has benefitted from 10 years of donated legal work from the large San Francisco firm of Morrison & Foerster. Attorneys for the firm, representing the Audubon Society and the Mono Lake Committee, won a landmark ruling that the public trust doctrine forbids Los Angeles from killing off the lake and its streams to protect its water supply.

More recently, Los Angeles was ordered to release more stream water into the lake, and a court voided the city's licenses to collect any water from the Mono Lake area. The city, which obtains about 15% of its water from the Mono Lake streams, was allowed to continue diverting some water until it can reapply for licenses. "It's become pretty clear that the California courts are not totally sympathetic to our arguments," the DWP's Georgeson said.

Nature provided the crucial stroke of good fortune for the committee's position. Two winters of heavy snowfall caused water to spill over two of the city's Sierra dams in 1984, sending water down the streams that feed Mono Lake. With the spilled water came trout, restoring fisheries that had died off when the city dried up the streams.

State law forbids killing off a fishery to supply water to any aqueduct, so when Los Angeles resumed its normal practice of shutting off water to the streams, an anglers' group and the Mono Lake Committee filed suits. Those suits recently led to a preliminary injunction ordering the city to release what is left of this summer's Sierra runoff into the lake.

The bill signed by Deukmejian on Saturday will set aside $65 million to help pay for an alternative source of water for Los Angeles. The bill's major catch, however, is that the city must first reach agreement with the Mono Lake Committee on where that water should come from. Georgeson said the DWP is looking to buy unused water from growers in the San Joaquin Valley, but Davis said the city could make up much of the water by conserving in Los Angeles. The committee has offered to help sell water conservation within the city.

"We have tried to keep the door open with the city of Los Angeles," Davis said.

©Los Angeles Times 1989