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U.S. Forest Service to Recommend Water Level Minimum : New Reports Expected to Turn Up Heat on Mono Lake Debate

November 01, 1987|ROBERT CRABBE | United Press International

LEE VINING, Calif. — Reports now being written by two government agencies are expected to fuel the debate over the future of Mono Lake when they are published later this year.

One of them, drafted by the U.S. Forest Service, will put an agency of the federal government on record for the first time with a recommendation on the amount of water that should be kept in the controversial lake.

The other report is being drawn up for the state Department of Fish and Game by the Community Organization and Research Institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Its authors decline to be pinned down on whether they will recommend a level at which the sinking lake should be stabilized. But the study, paid for by a $250,000 appropriation from the state Legislature, is expected to be a landmark in the Mono controversy.

Bird Colonies, Beauty

The desert lake in the Sierras east of Yosemite National Park is prized by nature lovers for the austere beauty of its setting and for the colonies of birds supported by its unique ecology.

The lake also is prized by the City of Los Angeles for a different reason. Los Angeles since 1941 has exercised the right to divert water from four streams that feed Mono Lake. The diversions amount to about 100,000 acre-feet of water a year. The Mono Basin in an average year accounts for about 17% of the city's water supply.

As a result of the water diversions, the elevation of the lake's surface has declined 37 feet in the last 46 years, from 6,416 feet above sea level in 1941 to 6,379 this autumn.

In a study made public earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences calculated that the lake surface would drop another 49 feet and finally stabilize at around 6,330 feet if Los Angeles' diversions continued unchecked.

Dead Sea Possibility

The academy didn't recommend a level at which Mono should be kept. But its projections of the effects of the 6,330-foot level on Mono's birds, and the shrimp and brine flies they eat, pointed to Mono becoming a dead sea at that depth.

The environmentalist challenge to Los Angeles' water rights at Mono began taking shape in 1978, when the Audubon Society spun off a new group, the Mono Lake Committee, to pursue the issue. The committee now claims 10,000 members.

The alliance of the committee and Audubon and California Trout, a fishing lobby, has maneuvered Los Angeles into lawsuits and controversies on a growing number of fronts.

Declared 'Public Trust'

The legal climate around the lake changed abruptly in 1983 when the California Supreme Court by a 5-1 vote accepted the argument of the National Audubon Society that Mono Lake's waters are a "public trust." The court ruled that environmental issues--as well as Los Angeles' water rights--could be considered in determining the lake's future.

Since then, the Mono County Superior Court has ordered Los Angeles--at least for the time being--to maintain a combined flow of about 20,000 acre-feet of water a year in two of the four streams to which it previously had unlimited access. The court orders on Rush Creek and Lee Vining Creek stand until the streams' value as trout fisheries can be determined.

Water Rights Challenged

In another lawsuit, environmentalists have challenged the legality of Los Angeles' permits to draw water from both the Mono Basin and the Owens River in eastern California. The Sacramento County Superior Court ruled in Los Angeles' favor in 1986, but the case now is before the state's 3rd District Court of Appeals.

Both the U.S. Congress and the California Legislature have taken an interest in Mono Lake in recent years.

The U.S. Forest Service was given a large voice in the Mono Lake issue in 1984 when Congress established the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area. That put the Forest Service in charge of about 60,000 acres of land surrounding the lake.

Management Plan Ordered

Congress also ordered the Forest Service to draw up a management plan for the new Scenic Area. Seven employees of Inyo National Forest are working on a draft environmental impact statement due before the end of the year.

"It is expected to address the lake level issue," says Christina Hargis, acting manager of the Scenic Area. "We have no power over it, but it will tell what the Forest Service wants to see. We have to live with what we get, but this will be our goal."

In Santa Barbara, Daniel Botkin, chairman of the university's Environmental Studies Department, is guarded about whether the state study will recommend a level for the lake.

"We are in the midst of deciding that," Botkin said. "It's a possibility."

Not Legally Binding

Legally, Los Angeles' water rights in the Mono Basin won't be affected by either report. They can be altered--or affirmed--only by the state Water Resources Control Board or the courts.

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