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Town, Anglers Fight Over Rich Trout Stream

Outdoors: Mammoth Lakes' plan to divert some water will harm fabled Hot Creek, fishermen say. Town says it seeks to balance environmental needs.


In a setting known for its burbling creeks and snowy peaks--and increasingly for its luxury condos and golf courses--anglers are accusing the town of Mammoth Lakes of a water grab that will allow the resort community to grow at the expense of a beloved trout stream.

Only two miles long, Hot Creek holds a special place in the hearts of anglers in California. With the Eastern Sierra massif as a backdrop, this celebrated stretch of stream is where several thousand fly fishermen have gone each year for decades to test their mettle against wily, plump trout, all of which must be released as soon as they are caught.

Now, to augment the town of Mammoth Lakes' relatively meager water supplies, the local water district is proposing a slight change in the way it diverts water from Mammoth Creek.

The proposal has anglers in an uproar because they say the diversion would eventually damage the trout waters of Hot Creek, which is fed, in part, by Mammoth Creek. The amount of water at stake is small, but the conflict has raised questions about the pace of development in the mountain town, which wants to compete with the swankiest resort communities in the western United States, such as Park City, Utah, and Vail, Colo.

"It's a world gone crazy, and it's so sad, because this is one of the great places to trout fish in California and the world," said Jim Edmondson, executive director of Cal Trout, an environmental organization.

For years, Mammoth Lakes has faced a vexing problem. Despite abundant runoff from 10 to 30 feet of snow most winters, the amount of water that the Mammoth Community Water District can take from the local creek is restricted by laws designed to ensure that the stream has adequate flows for fish.

The town has asked the state Water Resources Control Board to ease those restrictions on numerous occasions, but the requests were ultimately rejected in 1994. In response, the town went to nearby Mono County Superior Court, which approved the new limits in 1996.

But there was a caveat. For those limits to become permanent, the district had to complete an environmental study and then go back to the state water board for approval. That study is now at the center of the dispute. The water district contends that the study proves fish wouldn't be harmed in Hot Creek. Anglers claim otherwise. The state water board is expected to make its decision early next year.

Water district spokesman John Moynier said the new limits would not change the overall amount of water the district can take from Mammoth Creek each year, but rather would allow the town to take more from the creek during summer, when the water is needed most. He conceded that the new limits might result in less water in the creek in dry years, but he said numerous studies have shown that the fish wouldn't be affected.

"We've spent 14 years and over a million dollars trying to make these [limits] permanent," Moynier said. "I know it's been characterized as a water grab, but that's a misunderstanding of the project. I would think the fishermen would support this because it always guarantees some water for the creek."

In addition to receiving flows from Mammoth Creek, Hot Creek is fed by a series of springs that keep its waters unusually warm, meaning trout can fatten up on insects year-round. The California Department of Fish and Game estimates that there are more than 5,500 trout per mile in the stream, with most between 11 and 17 inches long--an impressive size for wild fish in the region.

Anglers fear that reduced flows in Hot Creek over many years would slowly erode the quality of the trout habitat. The primary concern is that reduced flows in Mammoth Creek during a prolonged drought would cause the waters, both in Hot Creek and downstream in the Owens River, to become too hot for the trout.

"I think the [water] district does care about the environment, but I don't think they really understand what the effects will be if they take more water from the creek," said Bill Nichols, manager of Hot Creek Ranch, which caters exclusively to anglers.

Edmondson, of Cal Trout, is intensely critical of Mammoth Lakes, saying that the city is jeopardizing the environment that is the area's main draw. "It's like throwing the baby out with the bathwater," he said.

He also said that Mammoth Lakes is outgrowing its water supply and worried that the conflict might be a harbinger of things to come in the region.

Mammoth Lakes officials and developers have long wanted the town to become a destination ski resort capable of attracting more people from throughout the country, particularly on weekdays, when business on Mammoth Mountain drops steeply.

Toward that end, development in Mammoth has soared in recent years and plans call for construction of about 2,600 more condominium units or luxury homes in coming years, according to town officials.

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