Conservationists fight to end Los Angeles water imports from Eastern Sierra’s Mono Lake

Tufa towers at Mono Lake.
Tufa towers along the shore of Mono Lake in Lee Vining in October 2021.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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As California enters what is expected to be a fourth year of drought, the State Water Resources Control Board is reviewing a request from environmentalists to suspend Los Angeles Department of Water and Power diversions from Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra Nevada.

In its request, the nonprofit Mono Lake Committee argues that the combination of drought and diversions from streams that feed the lake are exposing the lake bottom near islands that host one of the world’s largest nesting gull populations. Unless this is addressed, they say coyotes will be able to access the islands and feast on the eggs of 50,000 California gulls.

“We do not submit this request lightly,” said Geoffrey McQuilkin, executive director of the committee. “The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power can help by contributing something only it can: water.”

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The board’s response is expected within the next few weeks.

Los Angeles, roughly 350 miles to the south, has been importing water from this eerie, hyper-saline lake since World War II. Last year, the DWP rejected a committee request that it voluntarily cease its diversions of 4,500 acre-feet of Mono Lake water each year. One acre-foot of water is enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool halfway.

A man wades through ankle-high water with a fistful of brown weeds.
Bartshe Miller of the Mono Lake Committee wades through the lake with a fistful of invasive weeds.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The DWP says Mono Lake water is essential to serving roughly 54,000 of its 4 million ratepayers, about half of them living in disadvantaged communities. Ceasing that supply, it argues, would force the city to buy water from other sources and would boost water bills. Such purchases might also cut down water available to other Southern California areas in dry years, the DWP says.

The dispute is the latest in a long-standing battle between environmentalists and Los Angeles and comes at a time when the state’s hydrology is becoming more extreme. Shorter and more intense periods of rainfall, along with longer and more severe droughts, are making efforts to sustain water supplies for people and wildlife more difficult.

At Mono Lake, near Lee Vining — a gateway community to Yosemite — the fight is over roughly 1% of the water consumed annually in Los Angeles.

Mono Lake with mountains in the background.
Highway 120 runs along the south shore of Mono Lake in Lee Vining.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Ailene Voisin, a spokeswoman for the state water board, said her agency “will evaluate the request in light of rapidly deteriorating hydrologic conditions and the need to balance water supplies to Los Angeles with other beneficial uses including the protection of wildlife; impacts to air quality, and the interests of the Kutzadika’a Tribe, whose lands are in the Mono Basin.”


In 1994, the state water board laid out a target of restoring Mono Lake to a level of 6,392 feet, about 14 feet above the current level, to protect the ecosystem, water quality and air quality.

Environmentalists aim to halt the DWP’s diversions from Rush and Lee Vining creeks until the water level rebounds by several feet, creating a coyote-proof buffer between the mainland and historic nesting areas on Negit Island and Twain Islet.

Achieving that goal could take a few years, or much longer, depending on rain and snow in the winters ahead, scientists say.

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The largest number of gull nests ever recorded at Mono Lake was about 32,000 in the early 1990s. In 2019, 11,075 nests were counted, the lowest number recorded over the 34-year course of one of the longest studies of birds in North America.

In a Dec. 14 letter to the Mono Lake Committee, Anselmo G. Collins, senior assistant general manager at the DWP, said, “Southern California’s imported supplies are a critical part of the state’s shared water resources.”

“With the Colorado River, State Water Project, and Los Angeles Aqueduct all strained due to drought and extreme shifts in precipitation further restrictions on one of those resources only shifts impacts to the others.”


As for marauding coyotes, “there are other actions that can be taken to prevent potential predation of gull eggs,” Collins said, “such as electric fences, that have been proven effective in the past, and that are more prudent in light of the drought conditions that exist statewide.”

The committee is already collaborating with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California State Parks and others to install a temporary electric fence to steer coyotes away from California gulls, which are due to arrive in spring.

“But fencing is not foolproof,” McQuilkin said, “and won’t work at all if the land bridge between shore and the islands grows due to further lake level decline.”