Mono and Owens
lakes are homologues, or twins. This is a figurative expression: They were
significantly different even when both were lakes. Obviously they are very
different now, which is less a reflection of natural occurrence than of public
policy. The point is that the process which reduced Owens from its former to
present status is now affecting Mono.
What happened to
Owens was that the fresh waters that once fed it were diverted and shipped
south to Los Angeles via a 233-mile-long aqueduct opened for business in 1913.
This project had been first conceived 10 years earlier, at a time when all the
resident Angelenos—some 100,000 souls—had plenty of water. Among them were some
aggressive entrepreneurs who envisioned that the city might become more or less
what it has become—if it had a lot more water. It occurred to these men that
the enlightened few who understood what water would do for the arid lands
around L.A., who planned their real estate investments accordingly and then
made sure the water was delivered, stood to make impressive fortunes. This came
histories have been written about how L.A. got Owens Lake, and the movie
Chinatown was based on the same theme. All reports agree that some very hard
political and economic ball was played during this episode.
Angeles was served by a private water company, but before the building of the
aqueduct this was purchased by the city and became what is now called the
Department of Water and Power. With the backing of the developer-speculator
class, the DWP accumulated impressive resources of its own and a lot of
political clout. It became a sovereign municipal duchy, often operating
independently of city hall. Through aggressive lobbying to create favorable
state and federal legislation, by purchase and pressure on stubborn local
residents, the DWP acquired most of the water rights in Inyo, where Owens Lake
is located, and Mono counties, as well as a lot of ancillary real estate.
(After the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, both federal
bodies, the city of Los Angeles is the largest landowner in the two counties.)
When the aqueduct was completed, freshwater streams were turned into it; when
more water was needed it was obtained from a series of deep wells. By the 1930s
Owens Lake was a small sour puddle, and much of the ranch and agricultural land
of Inyo County that was formerly irrigated had become arid.
All of this wasn't
accomplished amicably. In fact, despite our recent squabbles about pipelines,
nuclear power, snail darters and acid rain, we have never had such a bitter and
violent environmental controversy as the one that took place during the
so-called Owens Valley water war. Residents in Inyo County harassed and
hammered on waterworks employees and state and federal bureaucrats thought to
be in cahoots with them. Clandestine dynamiters, who were locally regarded as
public-spirited heroes, blew more than a dozen holes in the aqueduct.
Eventually, lawmen and private security guards moved in to enforce the water
rights of Los Angeles. The crackdown squelched the rebellion, and the violence
was finally stopped. When the dust had settled in 1932, Will Rogers, who among
many other national commentators had been aroused by the conflict, issued more
or less the final communiqué of the water war. "This was a wonderful valley
with a quarter million acres of fruit and alfalfa, but Los Angeles had to have
more water for its chamber of commerce to drink more toasts to its growth, more
water to dilute its orange juice...so now this is a valley of
battle the DWP justified its actions by arguing that by bringing water to the
city, the greatest good for the greatest number was achieved. Today 3,000,000
people are served by the DWP in Los Angeles, and there are only 26,500
residents of Inyo and Mono counties. If the latter don't like what the former
are doing with the water, the democratic answer is, essentially, lump it. Inyo
County did, but even today the bitterness lingers.
In the 1930s,
because of the rapid growth of the L.A. metropolitan area, the DWP decided it
needed more water than Owens Valley could supply. In 1941 the aqueduct was
extended into the Mono Basin, with a second aqueduct from there being completed
in 1970. As of now, four of the five major streams that once fed the lake are
diverted into the DWP-built Grant Lake reservoir, 10 miles to the southwest.
From there the water enters an 11.5-mile-long tunnel burrowed under the Mono
Craters, a location that tends to alarm volcanologists, and then flows
aboveground through the channelized remains of the Owens River to another
reservoir, Crowley Lake. There it enters the aqueduct proper. In total, Mono
waters flow 338 miles to Los Angeles. The DWP has invested $100 million in the
Mono project. In return, it gets an average of 100,000 acre-feet of water a
year, approximately 17% of all the water used by its customers. Since there is
a drop in elevation of 7,000 feet between Mono and the city, the water is also
used to generate hydroelectric power—300 million kilowatt hours a year, or 1%
of the total used in Los Angeles.
As to trade-offs:
Since the diversion of the feeder streams began in 1941, the level of Mono Lake
has dropped at an average rate of more than 12 inches a year; the surface area
has decreased from 55,000 acres to 40,000; the water volume by about 45%; and
the salinity, because of the lower influx of fresh water, has doubled. What was
once Negit Island, the second-largest one in the lake, has been since 1978
Negit peninsula, a land bridge in the shrunken lake connecting it to the shore.
California gulls, brine shrimp and fly populations, while still huge, seem to
have declined, but the causes for this are a matter of dispute.
In 1978 the
Interagency Task Force on Mono Lake, made up of state and federal natural
resource authorities, was convened to consider the future of the lake. The task
force calculated that if the present rate of diversion continues, the lake will
stabilize sometime within the next 50 to 100 years, i.e., rainfall and the
remaining inflow of surface water will balance evaporation. At that point the
lake will be about half its present size, or about a third of what it was in
1941. It will be 27% saline, about three times more than at present. It will
then be too salty, so far as anyone knows, to support most of its current life
forms, including brine shrimp and flies, and, presumably, the waterfowl that
feed upon them.
The Mono Lake