Panel OKs Bills to Resolve Mono Basin Water Dispute

Times Staff Writer

Legislation designed to force the city of Los Angeles to resolve its long-running dispute with environmentalists over Mono Lake passed a critical test Wednesday by winning approval in the Senate Agriculture and Water Resources Committee.

One bill, by Assemblyman Phil Isenberg (D-Sacramento), would fund $390.8 million in water projects, including $75 million for the establishment of an Environmental Water Fund. It passed 7-3.

The second bill, by Assemblyman William Baker (R-Danville), requires the city, the state Water Resources Department and the Mono Lake Committee--an activist group that has been fighting to preserve the Mono Basin--to agree on a plan for protecting the lake's ecosystem. Once agreement is reached, the bill says, the city can be granted money from the new Environmental Water Fund which can be used to help Los Angeles find replacement sources for water now diverted from streams feeding Mono Lake. It passed 10-1.

The bills have been linked so that if one fails, so does the other. But a representative of Gov. George Deukmejian asked the committee to split the bills.

"It sounds to me," said Sen. Henry Mello (D-Watsonville), "that one would be signed andthe other vetoed."

Department of Water Resources Director David Kennedy said the Administration questions why the state "should help the city of Los Angeles do what the courts have told it to do." The committee, however, voted to deny the Administration's request.

Both bills had been stalled in the committee until both the city and the Metropolitan Water District agreed to support them.

Ancient Mono Lake, in the Eastern Sierra near Yosemite National Park, has been the focus of a political tug-of-war between environmentalists and Los Angeles for decades. The controversy centers around the city's need to divert water from the Mono Basin for millions of customers in Los Angeles and the environmentalists' desire to protect the lake's ecosystem.

For years the environmentalists complained that the city's water diversions lowered lake levels so dramatically that they endangered nesting and migratory birds that inhabit Negit Island and brine shrimp that thrive in the alkaline waters of the million-year-old inland sea.

City officials have steadfastly maintained that the diversions, which provide one-seventh of Los Angeles' water supply, have not threatened the ecosystem.

On Tuesday, an El Dorado Superior Court judge held in a preliminary injunction that the lake level must be raised by nearly two feet. City officials said the effect of the ruling would be to force them to temporarily halt diversions, since their Mono Basin storage system held only part of the water needed to comply with the order.

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