An omi­nous level

Mono Lake cri­sis threat­ens wildlife, L. A.’ s wa­ter sup­ply

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Louis Sa­h­a­gun

MONO LAKE, Calif. — As this drought- stricken body of salt wa­ter re­cedes, the reper­cus­sions mount: Its ex­posed al­ka­line f lats are giv­ing rise to dust storms. A haven for en­dan­gered mi­grat­ing birds has be­come more vul­ner­a­ble to preda­tors. And Los An­ge­les’ abil­ity to di­vert snowmelt from the re­gion — which it has done for seven decades — could be cut off.

In re­cent months, the Depart­ment of Wa­ter and Power has re­duced its take from Mono’s trib­u­taries by more than two- thirds. Still, the 1- mil­lion- year- old lake is within two feet of the level that state of­fi­cials say threat­ens the alpine ecosys­tem at the base of the eastern Sierra Ne­vada.

Un­less the re­gion gets a sig­nif­i­cant amount of rain by the next of­fi­cial wa­ter level read­ing in April, Mono may fall to 6,377 feet in el­e­va­tion, trig­ger­ing a halt to any di­ver­sions. The Cal­i­for­nia State Wa­ter Re­sources Con­trol Board es­tab­lished the limit in 1994 to re­solve a dis­pute be­tween en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and the city 350 miles south.

Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern is fur­ther ex­po­sure of a land bridge that coy­otes could cross to ac­cess the sec­ond­largest Cal­i­for­nia gull colony

in the state. That pas­sage­way to Ne­git Is­land and nearby islets is sur­fac­ing, leav­ing the eggs and chicks vul­ner­a­ble.

“I’ll be ter­ri­fied if the lake level drops another few feet,” said Kristie Nel­son, a bi­ol­o­gist who has been con­duct­ing re­search on Mono Lake’s gull pop­u­la­tion since 2004. “In years past, coy­otes have been known to swim across 200 yards of wa­ter to get to the gull eggs.”

Fa­mous for its tow­er­ing, craggy tufa for­ma­tions, the high desert lake east of Yosemite Na­tional Park is the rem­nant of a vast in­land sea, where fresh alpine runoff cas­cad­ing from Sierra slopes com­bines with salty wa­ter that is home to brine shrimp.

The con­tro­versy over the city’s di­ver­sions of wa­ter from Mono’s feeder streams is one of Cal­i­for­nia’s longestrun­ning en­vi­ron­men­tal bat­tles.

In April, the DWP re­duced its an­nual wa­ter ex­ports from 16,000 acre- feet to 4,500 acre- feet, when gauges recorded the sur­face level at 6,379 feet in el­e­va­tion. An acre- foot of wa­ter is enough to sup­ply two house­holds for a year.

In a sep­a­rate ef­fort to con­serve mea­ger eastern Sierra snow runoff, the DWP dammed the Los An­ge­les Aqueduct this year. That clo­sure will re­main in place un­til Novem­ber so the DWP can ful­fill obli­ga­tions such as dust mit­i­ga­tion on Owens Lake, which dried up af­ter the city wa­ter agency opened the aqueduct in 1913.

Usu­ally, the aqueduct sup­plies Los An­ge­les with a third of its wa­ter.

“If the lake level falls more than two more feet, we’ll be in the hands of the weather gods,” said Ge­of­frey McQuilkin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mono Lake Com­mit­tee, a non­profit group fo­cused on pro­tect­ing the ecosys­tem.

“There’s no con­tin­gency plan on the shelf for record drought.”

The com­mit­tee has started weigh­ing emer­gency pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing con­struc­tion of chain- link or elec­tric fences be­tween the main­land and off­shore nest­ing sites. Video cam­eras were re­cently in­stalled “to see if coy­otes are test­ing the bound­aries,” McQuilkin said.

In the mean­time, the shore­line is steadily fall­ing back, cre­at­ing a “bath­tub ring ” of dusty lake bot­tom. Warmer tem­per­a­tures, in­creased tur­bid­ity and re­duced f lows in the trib­u­taries — Lee Vin­ing Creek, Walker Creek, Parker Creek and Rush Creek — threaten trout pop­u­la­tions and ri­par­ian veg­e­ta­tion that is home to mi­grat­ing birds such as yel­low war­blers and lazuli buntings.

With eva­po­ra­tion out­pac­ing inf lows from those streams, a sheet of wa­ter less than 4 feet deep and a few hun­dred yards wide is all that pro­tects tens of thou­sands of breed­ing gulls from preda­tory coy­otes.

The sit­u­a­tion is rem­i­nis­cent of 1978, when, due to un­re­stricted city di­ver­sions, the lake level had dropped so low that the land bridge to Ne­git Is­land was fully ex­posed. The Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard, with the sup- port of the Audubon So­ci­ety, tried to blow it up with dy­na­mite, but the muck ex­ploded sky high and then sim­ply fell back into place.

A year later, a chain- link fence was in­stalled on the is­land. But as the wa­ter evap­o­rated, coy­otes padded around the ends of the fence and de­voured nestlings.

In an es­ca­la­tion of f ire­power, the U. S. For­est Ser­vice in 1990 strung 1,100 yards of low- volt­age wire across a por­tion of Mono’s north shore, in hopes a jolt on the snout would dis­cour­age coy­otes from cross­ing shal­low wa­ter to raid the rook­ery.

The elec­tronic bar­rier didn’t work, Nel­son said, “be­cause the sys­tem rapidly de­graded in the cor­ro­sive al­ka­line foam and wa­ter blow­ing off the lake.”

Stand­ing be­side a wa­ter level gauge sep­a­rated from the lake by a hun­dred yards of dry land, Nel­son said: “We have to take a hard look at all op­tions. These birds are in se­ri­ous dan­ger.”

Los An­ge­les has di­verted a to­tal of 4.28 mil­lion acrefeet of wa­ter from the Mono Basin since 1941.

For­mal protests be­gan with a law­suit that res­i­dents and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups filed in Mono County Su­pe­rior Court in 1979 against the DWP. The suit al­leged vi­o­la­tions of public trust and the cre­ation of a public and pri­vate nui­sance by ex­pos­ing 14,700 acres of for­mer lake bed.

In 1983, the U. S. Supreme Court let stand a rul­ing that en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists had the right to chal­lenge the amount of wa­ter Los An­ge­les was ex­port­ing from the trib­u­taries. A decade later, the state wa­ter board or­dered min­i­mum f lows re­stored for the di­verted streams and set the min­i­mum wa­ter level for Mono Lake.

So far, the 6,377 mark has never been reached.

Now “af­ter two decades of pro­tec­tions,” McQuilkin said, “we’re fac­ing some of the same is­sues we were con­cerned about in the 1970s.”

“Only this time,” he added, “it’s not Los An­ge­les’ fault.”

Don Kelsen Los An­ge­les Times

PEO­PLE WALK on the ex­posed lake bed at Mono Lake, whose trib­u­taries sup­ply wa­ter to the city of Los An­ge­les; in the fore­ground is a gauge used to mea­sure wa­ter depth, now yards away from the shore­line.

Cal­i­for­nia drought re­port card

latimes. com/ droughtre­port­card and CAL­I­FOR­NIA, B2

Don Kelsen Los An­ge­les Times

GE­OF­FREY McQUILKIN, left, of the Mono Lake Com­mit­tee watches Arya De­gen­hardt check the tem­per­a­ture of Rush Creek, a Mono Lake feeder stream.

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