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"Aha," says Georgeson, "that's the catch, the question nobody wants to face." He points out that once-promising waterworks are now defunct or in serious political trouble. "All environmental activities—heating Portland, Maine, cooling Houston, Texas, watering Los Angeles—involve trade-offs. If we are going to maintain metropolitan areas we have to bring water to them. If the water doesn't come from Mono, it has to come from someplace else and there will be an environmental impact at the source."
DWP reports frequently refer to "saline Mono Lake" and emphasize that the water has never been fit to drink, irritates the skin, corrodes water-ski boats, does not support decent sport fish and is generally of no account. Mono Lake preservationists counter that the streams which once fed the lake provided good trout fishing; that while it may not be in the Southern California style, people do boat and swim in Mono; and that 100,000 visitors come each year to a small, undeveloped state park on the lake.
Second, the DWP suggests that even though Mono is fairly scruffy, the waterworks is being very careful with it and isn't messing things up as rapidly or as much as hysterical environmentalists claim. The Mono Lake Committee and its supporters say this simply isn't true, that in fact the DWP is killing the lake. Which side is right is the crucial question. If nothing else, attempts to answer it have engendered a lot of research in and around the lake.
So far as money goes, the DWP is the chief supporter of this new cottage industry, having spent more than $500,000 in the last three years on Mono research conducted by either full-time employees of the department or consultants engaged by it. This activity will continue: The DWP signed a cooperative agreement last spring with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to pay for an additional $150,000 worth of research. This was in keeping with Secretary of the Interior James Watt's policy of inviting local interests or private enterprise to participate in federal research projects, a practice critics regard as comparable to letting a fox guard a hen house.
The Mono Lake Committee doesn't have the wherewithal to directly fund research as the DWP has, but the group has been remarkably successful in persuading a number of conservation-minded professionals, whose academic credentials and standing are at least as good as the experts hired by DWP, to investigate the situation at the lake. Here the Mono dispute illustrates a phenomenon associated with many environmental controversies: Time and again, small, impecunious, ad hoc outfits are able to thwart and change the plans of large, powerful, rich institutions and interests. This occurs because Mono Lake Committee-type organizations are fueled by passion and are able to obtain critical human resources—the services of people skillful in science, public relations, administration and politics—for free or at very cut rates. As a public affairs strategist Gaines, for example, has proved himself more than a match for any and all DWP hirelings, but until three years ago he worked for nothing and now is paid about the salary of a DWP clerk-typist.
Everyone agrees that Negit was an island until the spring of 1978 when it became a peninsula as the water level in the lake declined. (Recent storms have only temporarily resubmerged the bridge. Earlier the California Fish and Game Department and the National Guard tried to blast holes in it and then to put a predator-proof fence across it. Both efforts at re-establishing the isolation of Negit failed.) It's also agreed that Negit was the principal nesting site for as many as 50,000 California gulls and that within two years after the land bridge formed the gulls had left, scattering to smaller islands and rocky outcroppings, where they hatched eggs and reared chicks in somewhat reduced numbers. Then in 1981 25,000 chicks, about 90% of the hatch, died before they matured.
The Mono Lake Committee and the scientists doing research for it claim that because the land bridge formed, a kind of predaceous pogrom occurred; that, to quote its report, "coyotes invaded the island, routing its 34,000 nesting gulls, and preyed on their eggs...." As to the calamities of 1981, the committee believes that the gulls died for two reasons: because the islets to which they fled from Negit provided inferior nesting sites and because the brine shrimp hatch in the spring of 1981 was abnormally low, reflecting the fact that salinity of the water had increased. In the eyes of the committee, all this was brought on by the diversion of water to L.A. and is directly the fault of the DWP.
To the contrary, say waterworks spokesmen. The department's scientists found very little evidence of coyotes directly preying on the Negit gulls. It's also suggested that researchers, including those of the Mono Lake Committee, may have disturbed the birds in 1979 as much as the coyotes did. In leaving Negit the gulls were simply adapting to changed environmental conditions, something all vigorous species do. The relative success of the gulls' breeding in 1980 suggests that nesting sites on the smaller Mono islands aren't intrinsically inferior to Negit's. As to the 1981 die-off, DWP experts say the spring shrimp hatch was down because of natural cyclical changes. The gulls died, they say. mainly as a result of an early summer heat wave.
DWP authorities maintain that lake organisms will adapt to the steadily rising salinity levels for at least another 50 years and quite possibly until the water reaches its maximum salinity, around the year 2070 under the present diversion rate.
Monophiles respond that the impact of increasing salinity is not measurable in steady increments but often has a sudden cumulative effect that can produce dramatic changes.