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The Challenger : Martha Davis’ Small but Tenacious Mono Lake Committee Has Taken On the DWP--and May Even Win

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Martha Davis vividly remembers the first time she saw the Mono Lake basin--a bright, cobalt-blue sea encircled by a broad white alkali ring at the eastern base of the majestic Sierra Nevada.

“It was like the lake had shrunk in its bed,” she says of her 1982 visit, during which a windstorm kicked up, sweeping clouds of dust from the exposed basin. “I remember thinking, ‘Something is very wrong here.’ ”

The lake had shrunk, more than 40 vertical feet since 1941 when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power first tapped the Sierra snowpack streams that fed it, diverting the water by aqueduct to Los Angeles.

But the DWP was also destroying a rich and rare ecosystem: Mono Lake, a salty sump or terminal lake with no outlet, depends on the fresh snowmelt to sustain populations of brine shrimp and brine flies that in turn nourish millions of migratory and nesting birds. The Mono Lake Committee, launched in 1978 by student David Gaines and a handful of concerned biologists, had called national attention to the crisis, and faced a courtroom showdown with the DWP.

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Enter Martha Davis. Fresh out of Yale, she found the environmental challenge she had been looking for--at Mono Lake. And since 1984 when she became executive director, she has led an underfunded, understaffed, grassroots environmental group to victory--or at least to a victorious resting point--over the largest municipal utility company in the United States. With unswerving (some say “too unswerving”) tenacity, Davis has challenged the whole Southern California water-use tradition.

Committee director Ed Grosswiler, now a public affairs consultant in Portland, Ore., recalls Davis’ recruitment:

“It was an important time. We’d had a major breakthrough when the California Supreme Court designated Mono Lake as a public trust resource, but there were several court suits pending. It was going to be complicated.

“My sense from the time I met Martha was that she was the kind of person who would get hold of an issue and wouldn’t let go until it was won.” The California-born Davis, who had just gone to work for Greenpeace, was hooked by the challenge. Although critics trivialized the Mono Lake action as a matter of “brine flies versus people,” she thought drinking water and environmental repair were compatible. “I wanted to be part of bringing those solutions together,” she says.

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But she hadn’t anticipated DWP’s intransigence. When a Superior Court judge, for the third time in three years, told DWP last April that it could not resume water diversions from the lake until it reached an acceptable minimum level, the committee celebrated a cautious victory for the first time.

And the soft-spoken Davis, who refuses individual credit, has received praise for an environmental triumph that her admirers call historic and even her opponents acknowledge as significant.

“She’s a baby-faced killer,” says Assemblyman Phil Isenberg (D-Sacramento), a key water legislator and Davis backer who sponsored an important $60-million Mono Lake water fund bill two years ago. “She looks like an endearing and charming cocker spaniel but has the jaw strength of a pit bull.”

Davis has done more than defend the brine fly. By preaching conservation to engineers who want to “divert,” says Isenberg, she and the Mono Lake group have “literally forced Los Angeles to pay attention and seek out alternatives they would not otherwise have done.”

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She is also a classic behind-the-scenes player. While the 1980s media coverage of Mono Lake-DWP would choke a landfill, Davis’ personal press clippings are limited to a small-but-prophetic 1988 squib in Los Angeles Times Magazine, which named her as one of 88 people expected to shape the city’s future.

Davis, 37, is a hard-nosed specialist in environmental mediation. Swiveling around in her chair in the committee’s Burbank offices, she repeats the group’s theme since 1978:

“Our object is not just to win battles but to work out solutions that benefit everyone.”

The first thing she hands a visitor is a 1991 Mono Lake calendar, its lush color photos of crystallized lake-shore grasses and surreal moon-surface fossils juxtaposed with two time lines: One traces the geologic faults and volcanic eruptions that began developing the ancient lake 3 million years ago; the second traces the court battles to forestall a projected water-level drop to “Ecosystem Collapse” by the year 2012, if DWP water diversions continue.

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Davis’ admirers are unstinting in praise of her persistence. Isenberg, who negotiated the Mono water fund bill with Davis, says she was “fundamentally pig-headed and wrong in several places,” but never off-course: “She’s made some tactical errors but not fundamental ones.” He describes Mono Lake as “a classic example of a single-focus issue with a small funding base, a fervently held position and incredible dedication of time and energy on Martha’s part. She’s practically sacrificed her life for this. I’ve been told she has a home, but I don’t think so, because every time I see her, she is traveling.”

The Mono Lake issue itself is only one conflict in the perpetual litigious maze of damming, diverting and digging that characterizes the history of Los Angeles water. (Even DWP spokesmen don’t agree how important its streams are to future city water supplies.)

The immediate fascination is the fight’s David-and-Goliath symbolism. The Mono Lake Committee, with offices in Burbank and Lee Vining (the town nearest Mono Lake), is a nonprofit organization of 21,000 members, a staff of 14 and a budget of about $800,000. It has relied heavily on the pro bono work of a San Francisco law firm as the case bounced from court to court through the ‘80s.

DWP, weighing in with 11,000 employees, 1.3 million customers and a current budget of more than $3 billion, has spent an estimated $7 million in Mono legal costs.

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Says Isenberg: “Martha and the committee have brought a monolith, if not to its knees, then to a position of somber negotiating at the bargaining table. They humbled the giant.”

DWP’s general manager for water, Jim Wickser, who has faced Davis in monthly negotiating sessions at UCLA since 1984, responds that “I don’t know if humbled is the right word--we’re obviously disappointed in the court ruling.” He calls Davis a “tough adversary and very well informed. She probably knows as much about hydrology as I do, or maybe more.”

Mike Gage, president of the city’s Water and Power Commission, describes Davis as “very personal, pleasant, tenacious and rigid,” and says the David-Goliath comparisons have some merit. “My perspective is that we weren’t managing that resource (Mono Lake) very well. It’s been a learning experience for us, albeit not a pleasant one. We’re changing the way we look at all water as a resource.”

Davis, a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environment, brings to an old conflict a passion for her cause and a new specialty--environmental mediation.

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To that end, she has lobbied, consulted, testified, persuaded and negotiated from City Hall to Washington to make her point that, “it would be a shell game to protect Mono Lake and just transfer the (water supply) problem to another place.”

She recites the details like a litany: “We’ve put a six-point plan that would protect the lake and provide Los Angeles with a reliable water supply to the mayor, the City Council and the DWP. I’m interested in solving the problem now, not waiting for the next court hearing.”

What she represents, says Bob Hattoy, regional director of the Sierra Club, is the best of the new environmental activism: “She doesn’t see problems as something to scream about, but something to solve. I’ve seen her negotiate with DWP, I’ve seen her arguing in court, I’ve seen her fund-raising before the captains of industry at the San Francisco Yacht Club.”

Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky credits Davis with saving the lake.

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“It’s one of the main environmental issues in this state,” he says. “Every skier in Southern California has gone to Mammoth and watched, as I have, the water of the lake recede. It takes one person making a commitment to give life to a cause, and she has done it.”

He also points out that Davis’ longtime message that conservation can reduce water consumption has been validated by drought measures taken during the last year.

Davis jumps into her Jeep Cherokee at least once a month for the 350-mile trip from her Pasadena home to Lee Vining. She has “hiked and wandered” throughout the Mono basin, marveling at pockets of hip-deep freshwater thick with cottonwoods and watercress, or stalagmitic formations known as tufa. “It’s a million-year-old lake, with a million-year-old ecosystem. It’s like nowhere else in the world,” she says.

Her favorite memory? “Easy! One early morning in a canoe when a huge flock of thousands of phalaropes flew over, little fluffy birds who turn as they fly, flashing black and white, black and white, weaving through the tufa towers. You had the sense of being caught up in the rhythm of the planet.”

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And though she is concerned about the amount of private life she is sacrificing, Davis says she doesn’t regret it:

“We’re very proud of what we’ve done. We’ve been a constructive part of developing sound water policy in Los Angeles.”

Davis grew up in San Rafael and got early experience in taking on formidable opponents. In high school, she was appointed to a youth position as parks, recreation and open space commissioner on the Marin County Board of Supervisors. For four years, she attended monthly meetings in the San Rafael Civic Center where the board wrestled with all the questions of development impact, cutting her teeth on tough land-use issues.

“It was fascinating experience,” she says. “We were right in the middle of some very difficult land-use issues and I learned a lot.” She went to Stanford with “no question in my mind about my future--I wanted to work on land-use planning issues,” and the school’s flexible human biology program made it easy to develop her own major. The Yale master’s program with its mediation approach to resolving conflicts appealed to Davis because “it looked like an intelligent approach--to bring all the players to the table.”

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That she has yet to reach an agreement with the DWP does not daunt her. Even while claiming that the utility is dragging its feet on creative thinking, she keeps motivated by the idea that “the solutions are so obvious that surely in the next six months the pieces will fall together, and if I’m just persistent and consistent, we will have a solution.”

Davis believes she’s in the right place at the right time:

“Part of the excitement of change is the opportunity to innovate. Over the next 10 years this state will reinvent itself, in water policy and everything else. It’s exciting--it’s an opportunity to make an impact. I’m a technological optimist. I believe in the ability to harness our collective intelligence and solve problems.”


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