Amidst a severe drought linked with global warming, conservation advocates and Native Americans in California are rallying for a temporary emergency halt to all surface water diversions from Mono Lake. They argue that the ongoing depletion of the watershed, coupled with the long-term drought, poses a threat to critical ecosystems and jeopardizes the cultural connection of the Kootzaduka’a tribe with the lake.
In two letters written in December 2022, the Mono Lake Committee and California Indian Legal Services emphasized the urgent need for action, claiming that Mono Lake’s water level has reached a critical point. They called for the curtailment of all surface water diversions until the lake’s elevation approaches 6,392 feet, a protective level set by the state in 1994 that the lake has never come close to reaching.
The request for emergency measures was addressed during a public workshop organized by the California State Water Resources Control Board on February 15. A recording of the workshop can be found on their website.
Geoff McQuilkin, executive director of the Mono Lake Committee, described the situation as an “urgent and developing ecological crisis” that poses imminent harm to Mono Lake in a letter sent to the state’s Division of Water Rights. He urged the agency to suspend the export of water diverted from Rush and Lee Vining creeks and redirect it into Mono Lake.
Echoing these concerns, Michael Godbe, an attorney from California Indian Legal Services, wrote a letter on behalf of the Kootzaduka’a Tribe, who have inhabited the Mono Lake area for thousands of years. Godbe requested the immediate halt of all diversions until the lake reaches a level of at least 6,384 feet above sea level to prevent further degradation of the tribe’s cultural connection with the lake.
In response to the ecological concerns raised by the Mono Lake Committee, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) issued a letter in January to the board, disregarding the Kootzaduka’a Tribe’s cultural concerns. Anselmo Collins, senior assistant general manager of LADWP’s water system, stated that no emergency conditions exist that would warrant an emergency regulation. Collins also emphasized that the proposed actions would potentially infringe on LADWP’s rights.
Mono Lake, an ancient salt lake located in Eastern California’s high desert, relies on freshwater streams flowing from the Sierra Nevada Mountains for replenishment. But, since 1941, Los Angeles has been diverting millions of gallons of water from the lake’s tributary streams through the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Efforts to protect Mono Lake began in the 1970s, driven by grassroots support and scientific evidence. In 1983, the California Supreme Court ruled that the public trust values of Mono Lake must be considered in water allocation decisions within the Mono Lake Basin. FInally, a restoration plan was finalized, imposing limitations on diversions and mandating specific seasonal stream flows to rehabilitate the streams. The plan also required Mono Lake to reach an elevation of 6,392 feet, considered the minimum level for protecting the lake’s ecosystem.
However, the restoration plan did not adequately consider the lake’s cultural significance to the Kootzaduka’a Tribe, as highlighted in Godbe’s letter. Prompt action is crucial to safeguard the tribe’s previously unconsidered connection to the lake, which is now threatened by a hotter and drier climate.
The Mono Lake workshop held on February 15 could mark a step towards greater inclusion of the Kootzaduka’a Tribe in future decisions regarding lake levels and stream flows. The recent adoption of a Racial Equity Statement by the State Water Board acknowledges past injustices and commits to being more inclusive in its proceedings.
While the adoption of the racial equity statement is a positive development, the tribe emphasizes the need for concrete actions to fulfill these commitments. The tribe seeks meaningful involvement in decisions and the cessation of water diversions to address the current crisis at Mono Lake.
With Mono Lake’s ecological balance at stake and the cultural heritage of the Kootzaduka’a Tribe in jeopardy, urgent measures and long-term solutions must be pursued. The State Water Board’s dedication to equity and reconciliation for California’s Native peoples must be translated into tangible actions that protect Mono Lake and ensure the meaningful involvement of the tribe in decision-making processes.