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The Lake And the 'hood

A struggle to save a desert lake could have pitted bird lovers against city water consumers. Instead, a remarkable alliance was born between environmentalists, community activists, and East Los Angeles youth

A researcher at Mono Lake. Photo courtesy Mono Lake Committee

The Mono Lake community seems to have little reason to befriend anyone in Los Angeles. For half a century, water diversions piped from this ancient, landlocked sea east of California's Sierra Nevada across 350 arid miles to the sprawling metropolis nearly unraveled Mono's fragile ecosystem. Mono Lake activists fought a 16-year David-versus-Goliath battle against the city's Department of Water and Power (DWP) to stop the diversions. Yet the rural community and the city with teeming neighborhoods have emerged from the fray as watershed partners.

The environmentalists knew from the start that they were suing the city's water bureaucracy, not its residents. Many of them grew up in Los Angeles, and the Mono Lake Committee has always maintained an office in the city. They recognized LA's need for water. Instead of getting the water Mono Lake needed by taking it from city residents, the Mono activists sought solutions that could meet the legitimate needs of all participants.

What the environmentalists did not know when they made this commitment is that their most enthusiastic allies would be inner-city activists and the children of the barrios of East Los Angeles—that this disenfranchised community would became the standard bearer for Mono Lake. Today the urban and rural activists share a commitment to this modern-day watershed linked by a man-made aqueduct, not a natural stream channel. It's a tentative alliance that may not survive future challenges. But for now, people at both ends of the pipeline feel connected by the water they share and their loyalty to the rural ecosystem that benefits them all.

“Everyone in LA knows we live in a desert. People understand the importance of having this water from Mono Lake,” says Elsa Lopez, former executive director of Mothers of East Los Angeles—Santa Isabel, the grassroots group at the heart of the link to the lake.

Ecological havoc
The relationship between the city and country cousins hasn't always been harmonious. Perched at the western edge of the Great Basin, Mono Lake is one of the West's last wild remnants, a stark and mysterious place of haunting beauty. Tufa towers loom along the shoreline like gargoyled statues dwarfed by the Sierra's snow-capped peaks to the west and the barren ranges that corrugate Nevada to the east. The lake level has fluctuated over its 700,000-year history but never enough to harm the 80-plus species of migrating birds that have adapted to its peculiar food chain of algae, brine shrimp, and alkali flies.

It was Los Angeles and its insatiable thirst for water that altered the lake's complex balance. In 1941 the city's Department of Water and Power (DWP) began diverting four of the lake's five major streams, sending water off the mountain to flow into Los Angeles kitchens and bathrooms instead of Mono Lake. The lake level began to drop immediately. By 1974 it had plummeted more than 40 feet. Along with doubling the natural salinity, the shrinking waters turned an island in the lake into a peninsula, making the nests of snowy plovers vulnerable to predators. Declining populations of brine shrimp as well as receding shorelines threatened eared grebes, Wilson's and red-necked phalaropes, and America's second largest breeding population of California gulls.

The plight of the birds galvanized David Gaines. A University of California graduate student and self-described bird freak, Gaines was alarmed by the ecological havoc wreaked by DWP diversions. He and a handful of fellow students, scientists, and local leaders from the tiny town of Lee Vining formed the Mono Lake Committee to take on the billion-dollar Los Angeles DWP. No one expected them to win. Even their supporters labeled the effort “a noble waste of time.”

But the Mono Lake Committee was committed to more than saving the lake. From the start Gaines looked for solutions that would reconcile the needs for water at the lake and at the other end of the pipeline.

It would have been easy to treat Los Angeles as a villain. City officials employed stealth, deception, and ruthless power to acquire the water rights eventually used to drain Owens Lake to the south, and they appeared bent on wiping out Mono Lake, too. From William Mulholland to the water czars that followed him into the 1990s, Los Angeles officials held the unshakable conviction that the city's domestic and industrial needs for water were of far greater value than any agricultural usage. Its value as a natural resource was not even discussed.

The Mono Lake Committee, with the National Audubon Society and California Trout, fought back in a series of lawsuits. Among the court decisions was a landmark 1983 ruling that upheld the principle of “public trust,” the ancient legal doctrine that the government has an obligation to protect places such as Mono Lake for the use and benefit of all the people. Various court decisions ordering protections for the lake and its feeder streams culminated in 1994, when the California State Water Resources Control Board ordered Los Angeles to reduce its water diversions until the lake level returns to a surface elevation of 6,392 feet.

When Martha Davis became executive director of the Mono Lake Committee, she focused on turning the court orders into real water. Her goal was to develop conservation programs in Los Angeles that would generate the water the courts ordered returned to Mono Lake. Davis met with LA city council members, DWP officials, neighborhood leaders—anyone she could involve in the campaign. Her efforts contributed to state legislation allocating $35 million to Los Angeles for water conservation and recycling.

Primed by a three-year drought, the DWP was ready to use some state funds to test a pilot program distributing low-flush toilets. Instead of contracting its own staff, the department hired community groups to canvass their neighborhoods offering free toilets to anyone who replaced a water guzzler. Whether or not the inclusive “we're in this together” philosophy of the Mono Lake Committee was a direct influence on this decision, it was a remarkable choice. The DWP topped it by hiring Lopez, an inner-city activist, to coordinate the toilet distribution program in her East LA neighborhood. “It was serendipity all the way,” says Frances Spivey-Weber, the committee's current co-executive director.

The commitment of mothers
The Mothers of East LA—Santa Isabel base their power not in economic wealth but in “the knowledge, commitment and determination that only a mother can possess.” Lopez set up shop at her house, where one Saturday morning the water department delivered the first 400 of thousands of toilets. Neighborhood youth went door-to-door exhorting the benefits of the ultra-low-flushers. They will cut water use to a third of the old ones, these neophyte conservationists said. That's 5,000 gallons a year that could stay in Mono Lake. East LA soon had several hundred new low-flush toilets installed every week and the commission Lopez' group earned on each one helped fund the group's other programs. DWP officials were impressed with the program's success. But what happened next stunned them.

Lopez was also a teacher, and she understood the educational benefits of experiencing lessons hands-on. She worked with the Mono Lake Committee to send a group of Los Angeles youth to the Lake for five days of camping, hiking, and swimming. It was the first time many of them had seen real fish in a stream and a river that didn't have concrete sides, she says.

Once home, the kids carried their vision of Mono Lake to their parents, teachers, and neighbors. In the two months after they returned, the number of low-flush toilets was triple the number distributed the previous seven months.

“People suddenly understood the importance of this water they were using. They started asking what else they could do to help Mono Lake,” Lopez says.

The lesson was not lost at Mono Lake. Since that first trip in 1992, the committee has brought thousands of Los Angeles residents to the lake in school, family, and community groups. It is planning a permanent outdoor education center to house future groups. These are the next generation of leaders, says Geoffrey McQuilkin, co-executive director of the Mono Lake Committee.

The link between Mono Lake and their lives in Los Angeles is intangible for most of these campers, but one may have spoken for all when he said, “Mono's better than Magic Mountain. Mono's part of the ‘hood.”

This enthusiasm has contributed to an astonishing conservation record. Los Angeles has cut its water usage by 15 percent and held its demand for water to 1970 levels despite a 30 percent population increase. “It's staggering how much people have cut back,” says Peter Kavounas, eastern Sierra environmental group manager with the Department of Water and Power.

Kavounas is quick to acknowledge the value of the cooperation between his department and the Mono Lake Committee. One of the new breed of DPW officials appointed to their positions since 1994, Kavounas invites committee representatives to meetings discussing Mono Lake restoration programs. Although DWP has total authority to make decisions under the water board ruling, Kavounas chooses to include the Mono Lake Committee.

“They're our eyes and ears on the ground,” he says. “They have insights that are important to us. It would be foolish not to meet with them as often as possible.”

The Mono Lake Committee's partnership with Los Angeles has inspired other groups to adopt processes that aim to solve problems at both ends of a watershed. Last year McQuilkin traveled to Israel and Jordan, where the German-based International Lake Partnership is trying to protect the Dead Sea against municipal diversions from the Jordan River. California activists believe the committee's methods offer promise for what many regard as one of the state's greatest environmental tragedies: the flooding of Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley when the Tuolumne River was dammed to create a reservoir for San Francisco. Under a proposal to restore Hetch Hetchy by removing the dam, the city would gain by building a more reliable and nearby reservoir; the national park and the public would regain a valley whose beauty once rivaled the Yosemite Valley itself, says Ron Good, executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy.

The relationship the Mono Lake Committee now enjoys with Los Angeles will be tested when the lake level reaches the court-ordered 6,293-foot elevation goal. That will trigger a state water board review of the issues of water diversion, restoration, and conservation. These discussions will also test the grassroots urban constituency the committee has developed and its commitment to Mono Lake.

What will matter then, says McQuilkin, is what has always mattered: working toward solutions that benefit everyone. “The committee is a distillation of that desire in all of us to live in the natural world without harming it, to pursue a sustainable future in which lakes and streams and cities and brine shrimp and people and phalaropes all have an opportunity to thrive.”


Jane Braxton Little is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in over 40 publications, including Audubon, American Forests, The Los Angeles Times, and Utne. 

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