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Know the West

Mono Lake: Victory over Los Angeles turns into local controversy


Note: an essay by Charles Wilkinson about Mono Lake accompanies this feature story.

LEE VINING, Calif. - Mono Valley hovers at the western edge of the Great Basin on the Sierra Nevada range, a majestic place of stark horizons and haunting skies. In autumn, Lombardy poplars and cottonwoods blaze golden along the highway and seem to light the way to Mono Lake.

One of the oldest lakes in North America, Mono Lake has the lonely, disquieting presence of an old soul cast into a landscape sculpted by earthquake, erosion and volcano. The lake is off-round, without outlet and twice as salty as the sea. Its shoreline is studded with tufa towers, spires of porous rock covered with gargoyled knobs.

It is here, among the California gulls, brine shrimp and alkali flies, that grassroots environmentalists earned a stunning victory three years ago. An upstart band of students and scientists, who became the Mono Lake Committee in 1978, challenged the powerful Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Since 1941, the city had been diverting four of the lake's five major streams all the way down to Los Angeles. That dropped the lake level 40 feet and unraveled its unique ecosystem.

It took 16 years of court battles and public hearings, but the Mono Lake Committee and its allies won. In 1994, the California State Water Resources Control Board ordered Los Angeles to halt all withdrawals of Mono Lake water until the lake climbed 17 vertical feet to an elevation of 6,392 feet (see story, p. 8). The bottom of the lake is irregular, and while the deepest point is about 150 feet, measurement is expressed in elevation above sea level.

Today, as the water in Mono Lake rises over sun-cracked banks, the entire basin is alive with change. But the return of flowing water to Mono Basin has renewed conflicts put aside in the flush of triumph. Saving the lake drew old-timers and newcomers together against a common, urban enemy.

Now the reality of restoration is raising the most fundamental questions: What point in the past is the goal? Which values take precedence? And who gets to decide?

At the heart of the conflict is a plan to take irrigation water from a creek that feeds historic ranches and return it to a creek that feeds into the lake. The plan has pitted the Mono Lake Committee, bent on restoring the lake and its habitat, against many locals who feel their valley's character and history are at stake - and too high a price to pay to revive a natural stream system.

Residents who had come to appreciate the Mono Lake Committee and accept its members as valuable additions to the community have turned against it. Many say they feel excluded and duped by a group they once considered heroic.

Searching for solutions

Nowhere are the challenges of restoration felt more keenly than in the Mono Lake Committee's office in Lee Vining, a town of 419 residents which lies above the lake near the east entrance to Yosemite National Park. The committee operates an information center and bookstore out of a 1930s dance hall built for workers during construction of the aqueduct that sent Mono Lake water to Los Angeles. The business offices are behind the information center in a converted icehouse. A sign on a wooden plank over the door reads, "Water Rustlers."

Inside, Heidi Hopkins, the Mono Lake Committee's Eastern Sierra policy director, darts among the file cabinets and boxes of publications with bird-like intensity. In the 18 months since she moved to Lee Vining to work for the committee, Hopkins has immersed herself in the flora, fauna and politics of her new home.

"I have always been strongly attracted to the east side of the Sierra Nevada," she says. "History is still fresh here. We haven't covered everything with houses."

Lately, Hopkins has been immersed in regulatory documents, scientific studies and, most particularly, "screaming matches' over restoration. Her goal, which sometimes feels more like a dream, she says, is to find solutions based on facts and to end the divisive anger that has dominated recent discussions about the basin's water.

On the surface, the fight is about waterfowl habitat. More than a million ducks, geese and other water birds once found refuge on the fringes of Mono Lake in wetlands and wooded marshes. But as the city of Los Angeles drew water from the lake for five decades, much of that habitat disappeared.

When the State Water Resources Control Board issued its 1994 order regulating diversions from Mono Lake, it also required the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to restore waterfowl habitat. The city took recommendations from three independent scientists and then developed its own restoration plan.

Next to raising the lake itself, the Los Angeles plan identifies the restoration of Mill Creek as the key to restoring the basin's lost habitat. The third largest stream in Mono Basin, Mill Creek flows through Lundy Canyon to empty into the northwest corner of Mono Lake. Its broad valley bottom once supported forests, wetlands and marshes, a rare combination of refuges in a region dominated by high-desert sage.

Although it was never tapped by Los Angeles, Mill Creek has been diverted to irrigate ranches and make hydroelectric power for over a century. This turned Mill Creek, a year-round stream meandering through towering cottonwoods and willows, into a seasonal sputter among trees dying or already dead from lack of water.

The city's restoration proposal would return historic flows to Mill Creek, re-establishing what some scientists consider the Great Basin's most threatened forest habitat. Willows would grow under a canopy of cottonwoods and Jeffrey pines, they say, while deer, bobcats, coyotes and water-loving birds would find their way back to the creek at Mono Lake's edge.

"Rewatering Mill Creek should be an exceptionally high environmental priority," says Scott Stine, a Berkeley scientist who has included Mono Lake in his studies of physical and biological changes that have occurred over the last 2 million years. Called a purist by both his fans and his detractors, Stine says the creek's rich bottomland was once an oasis now nearly lost in the Great Basin.

Restoration has a price

There's a limit to what most Lee Vining residents are willing to sacrifice to return Mill Creek to its natural state.

Fifty years before Los Angeles began to plunder other Mono Lake streams, neighboring Wilson Creek carried over half of Mill Creek's water through ranches stretched out across open hillsides northwest of the lake.

The Conway, Thompson and Dechambeau ranches were home to some of the earliest European settlers in the Mono Basin. In the 1870s, homesteaders prospered by supplying miners in nearby Bodie with meat, dairy products and fresh vegetables. Since the 1940s, the ranches have supported sheep operations.

With their classic wooden buildings weathering under poplars at the edges of green pastures, the ranches are now part of the charm of the Mono Basin - all thanks to the network of channels diverting water out of Mill Creek. And when other ranchers sold out their water rights to Los Angeles, the Conway Ranch held firm. Mono Lake could have degraded even more through the years without water preserved by the Conway Ranch.

Then the Conway Ranch was threatened with development. The 1,031-acre ranch had been sold in the early "80s to developers who completed six homes of a proposed 106 on 40 acres. More development on the remaining 991 acres had already been approved and would have included commercial outlets, a swimming pool and a golf course, as well as more houses.

A variety of agencies - the Department of Fish and Game, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as the county board of supervisors and the Mono Lake Committee - were eager to keep the area rural.

When the Conway Ranch went on the market in 1995, the Mono County Board of Supervisors decided to acquire it. Mono County is now negotiating, with the help of the Trust for Public Land, to buy the ranch from the current owner. In addition to protecting the open space and historic buildings, the supervisors hope to build a fish-rearing facility on the ranch to restock local streams and provide jobs. They also intended to transfer the Conway Ranch water rights back to Mill Creek.

The Mono Lake Committee supports the purchase. "Mill Creek is an unusual cottonwood and willow environment. Wilson Creek is beautiful but it's not unusual," says Heidi Hopkins.

Opponents of the rewatering plan worry about its effect on all of the Mono Basin ranches. Changing the nature of the Conway Ranch - no longer a working ranch, but still a lush oasis appreciated by its neighbors - also seems ironic. During Los Angeles' quest for ever-more Mono Basin water, the Conways were the only ranchers to survive the city's conquest with their water rights intact.

Returning Conway Ranch water to Mill Creek would send the ranch itself back to an earlier condition. Sagebrush would creep into the historic ranch meadows now knee-deep in grass. Nearby freshwater ponds which have supported mallards and teals would dry up. Wilson Creek would revert to a seasonal stream, its year-round trout fishery lost.

To Bonnie Noles, whose family settled in the Mono Basin in the 1870s and later homesteaded 160 acres overlooking Mono Lake, restoring a natural creek at the expense of a century of local history is not only outrageous, it's unrealistic.

"The Mono Lake Committee wants to revert the basin to pre-European stage," Noles says. "We're here now. They'll have to load us up, too. Our ancestors came in, cleared out the sagebrush and created farmlands. We don't want to change history."

Rewatering Mill Creek means "putting on blinders and turning the clock back," adds Katie Maloney-Bellomo, an attorney who spent her childhood summers in the Mono Basin and who recently became a year-round resident.

"These are not just scientific issues. These are historical, cultural values - and aesthetic values," she adds. "They raise the question of how human beings fit into the scheme of things in the Mono Basin."

Distrust over seeming secrecy

Maloney-Bellomo, a former member of the Mono Lake Committee, first learned about the plan to rewater Mill Creek during a walking tour of the Conway Ranch organized by the Mono Lake Committee in 1996. Although county supervisors and committee members say they had been discussing it for months, the water-rights transfer and its effects on Conway and other ranches came as a shock to Maloney-Bellomo and others in the community. That turned what might have been a simple disagreement into a battle.

Opponents of the proposal quickly formed a new group, the People for Mono Basin Preservation, to mount an all-out fight. Within a few weeks they had collected 400 signatures - most of the basin's population - opposing the restoration plan.

Heidi Hopkins insists the community overreacted. "We believe you could irrigate those ranches with much less water than has been done," she says. "The Mono Lake Committee cares deeply about what happens on the ranches. We would not condone drying (them) up."

Despite her reassurances, many opponents saw the plan as a scheme by "outsiders' trying to cut a deal behind closed doors. By the time most people learned about the Mill Creek plan it seemed to have a life of its own.

Hopkins admits the committee did little to publicize the open meetings. "It's difficult to keep the public involved in a lengthy and often tedious process," she says.

Mono County officials also blame themselves for not involving local people sooner in their plans to buy Conway Ranch and transfer its water rights. Their mistake stirred people's fears.

"For years we felt the Mono Lake Committee was overlooking our area in the best interests of the community," says Bonnie Noles. "We kicked back and let them do all of our thinking. Now the locals wonder how the Mono Lake Committee is any different from Los Angeles. They're taking water away from something we treasure."

"Wilson Creek has its own environment, too," Noles adds. "What's the point in ruining one place to change another one? It doesn't make sense."

Maloney-Bellomo has a more cynical view of the restoration plan: "This is a committee, sadly, that has outlived its cause. It has to change its mission from "Save Mono Lake" to restoration. And it needs controversy - a purpose - if it's going to get people to give it money," she says.

Grant money for restoration work, she points out, will provide the budget to support the committee's staff of up to 28 people in Lee Vining and Los Angeles.

The charge grieves Heidi Hopkins. "The Mono Lake Committee has been severely bashed over this issue. There is no money in it for us," she continues. "No one here is not grateful to the Mono Lake Committee for saving the lake - no one. Yet we have shoved in our face that we (the committee) are not a member of this community when we've been here for 20 years. It's a painful thing."

In addition to saving Mono Lake, the 18,000-member committee put the basin on the international map, drawing researchers, photographers and tourists to the area, argues Mono County Supervisor Andrea Lawrence. "There is nobody in that entire basin who was not helped economically by the Mono Lake decision."

Restoration is a natural stage of the process, Lawrence continues, and not a financial scam by outsiders. "Restoration is education, the next chapter in the environmental world."

A silver lining?

However painful it is, some think renewed controversy may be just what the region needs, a sort of rebirth of the driving energy that saved Mono Lake in the first place. Roger Porter, who manages the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area, says the restoration conflict is the sign of a new era which the Mono Lake Committee and the community are entering along with the basin itself. The committee must again prove its value to the ecosystem and to local residents, Porter believes.

He even sees the emergence of the People for Mono Basin Preservation as a positive sign: Community members are becoming more involved. Five years ago, few people in Lee Vining would have guessed they'd ever have the opportunity to rethink water use and habitat in the north basin. The struggle had always been to save the lake. Now, he says, locals have a rare and unexpected opportunity.

"This is a tremendous chance to improve management of all the resources of this basin - a golden opportunity to provide for change and make things better," he says. "We'll survive. We've faced hard times in the past."

As Mono County negotiates to buy the Conway Ranch, a community-based work group called the Conway Ranch Evaluation Workshop studies proposals for the land. The Trust for Public Land, which is guiding the groups, is currently preserving the ranch for public ownership with an option to purchase.

Meanwhile, overwhelming local opposition has forced the supervisors to oppose taking water from Wilson Creek to restore Mill Creek. Their 3-2 vote is a political statement without binding authority.

It is up to the State Water Board to decide whether the restoration plan involving Mill and Wilson creeks should be enacted. The board is expected to release a decision early in 1998. The water board will then conduct an environmental review with opportunity for public comments and appeals.

For now, Hopkins remains hopeful. "There are solutions out there if we can just put aside the enmity and look at the facts," she says. "We can't just have these screaming matches. What maintains me is my idealism about seeking a balance. There are always two sides and both sides are legitimate."

Jane Braxton Little is a freelance writer based in Plumas County, California.

You can contact...
 - Mono Lake Committee at 760/647-6595 or by e-mail at [email protected]
 - The People for Mono Basin Preservation, P.O. Box 404, Lee Vining, CA 93541.
 - Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area at 760/647-3044.