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For 35 years after the diversion of Mono waters began it caused little stir, certainly nothing on the order of the previous water wars. Local residents, having seen the fight lost in Owens Valley, saw little reason to oppose the project in the Mono Basin, an area less suitable for ranching and farming. Outsiders weren't that curious about what was happening around the isolated lake. This state of affairs suited the Los Angeles waterworks nicely.
But the situation has changed recently because of the efforts of a fiercely aggressive, single-issue environmental organization called the Mono Lake Committee, created five years ago by a young biologist named David Gaines. Now 35, Gaines, who grew up in Los Angeles, says that it wasn't until he was a graduate student that he realized there were any problems at Mono Lake, and he thinks his ignorance was typical.
As a youngster Gaines developed a strong interest in natural history. A passion for bird watching and an inclination to moon over maps, looking for empty spots on them, led him to persuade his parents to visit Mono during a family vacation. He returned as a teen-ager to admire the bird life and the scenery. "I had no idea that there was a connection between Los Angeles and this place," he says. "In Los Angeles water comes from a tap. How it gets there isn't something you learn about in school or, until recently, read about in the newspaper."
After completing a master's degree in biology at UC-Davis, he remained and taught for a year and then spent another semester teaching at Stanford. In the summer of 1976, with a party of Stanford and Davis undergraduates, he made his first professional field trip to Mono. He and the others were struck by the paucity of scientific information about the lake and how little attention was being paid to the effects of the diversions on the ecosystem. From this came the passion that Gaines has served ever since.
Gaines spent much of the next two years on the road, giving lectures and slide shows to environmental and civic groups throughout California, explaining what Mono Lake was, what it was in danger of becoming and the intricacies of water politics. With help from members of the original undergraduate study party and the institutional support of the National Audubon Society and Sierra Club, Gaines was able to generate enough interest so that the Mono Lake Committee was formed in 1978.
Its headquarters is a storefront office in Lee Vining, a tiny village on the shores of Mono. There a handful of volunteers, student interns and full-time, modestly paid staff members publish a monthly newsletter, issue position papers, sponsor seminars and operate a first-class natural history book and map store. From the store's revenues, dues from 4,500 members and occasional grants, the committee now grosses about $250,000 a year. Gaines is its chairman, and with his wife, Sally, one of the original Monophile converts and workers, he lives in Lee Vining. The committee employs a full-time lobbyist in Sacramento and an executive director in Los Angeles. The latter is Ed Grosswiler, 40, former AP reporter in Oregon and Congressional staff member in Washington, who is chiefly responsible for the organization's legislative, fund-raising and public relations activities.
The most obvious and substantial accomplishment of Gaines and his cohorts has been to make the fate of Mono a matter of general public concern. There is now the Interagency Task Force on Mono Lake; a bill has been introduced in the California legislature to fund a long-term Mono research project, and there are others before the U.S. Congress to make the lake and its environs a national monument. Also, the California Supreme Court in February handed down a decision for the committee, as the plaintiff, which says that according to the doctrine of public trust—one which has deep roots in English common law—the use of Mono should be regulated in the general public interest because the lake constitutes irreplaceable state communal property. The precedent-setting decision is sure to have an effect on other land-and water-use controversies. Le Val Lund, DWP chief of aqueducts, calls it "the most significant litigation in 100 years. It throws into question all the water resources in the state of California." The specific issue of the diversion of Mono Lake's water is now awaiting trial in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. Under the State Supreme Court's ruling, the judge must weigh consideration of public trust values against the needs of L.A.
The objective of the committee is to have the diversion of water from Mono to Los Angeles substantially curtailed. Specifically it favors the recommendation of the Interagency Task Force, which calls for Los Angeles to reduce the water it takes from the Mono Basin by 85,000 acre-feet per year, or, in other words, to use only about 15,000 acre-feet of it annually. This would stabilize the lake at about 10 feet above the present level, return Negit to permanent island status and maintain an environment suitable for the continued prosperity of brine shrimp, flies, birds and humans who like Mono. The planners calculate that if L.A. reduced its water use by 15% a year, 93,300 acre-feet a year would be saved, more than would be lost by reducing its demands on Mono. The overall cost for the loss of Mono water and hydroelectric power generated by it would be about 54¢ a year per customer in L.A. The committee believes that once the lake reaches the task force's recommended stabilizing level, the city of Los Angeles could resume diverting an amount approaching 50% of its past yearly average of 100,000 acre-feet.
The Los Angeles DWP opposes the proposal on the grounds that it would be much more expensive and disruptive to adopt than the task force claims. Most particularly, the waterworks people feel that the conservation measures are unrealistic. Duane L. Georgeson, 48, the DWP's chief engineer of waterworks and assistant manager and its principal spokesman in the Mono controversy, says that the only way the water savings suggested by the task force could be achieved is by rationing; that the DWP doesn't want to get into the water-cop business; and that it's unfair to subject Los Angeles citizens to such restrictions when, say, those of San Francisco are not.
Georgeson also points out that Los Angeles alone paid for and built the water collection works in the Mono Basin and by previous agreements and standing laws has every right to use as much as 167,000 acre-feet a year of the water. However, the DWP would give up this source—"get out tomorrow" is Georgeson's expression—if water in equal quantities and of comparable cost from elsewhere were made available to the city. And where might that water come from?