Mono Lake and the Public Trust Doctrine


An International Treasure

Biologically diverse and beautiful, Mono Lake lies to the east of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This large, shallow, inland desert lake is internationally recognized as a critical resting and feeding stop for over 2 million migratory birds every year.

In 1941, permits granted by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) allowed the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) to divert Mono Lake source water to meet the demand of its growing population. Construction of the Second Los Angeles Aqueduct began in 1963. The effects of diversion were almost immediate. Evaporation exceeded replenishment and the lake started to dry up. Studies of the lake done in the early 1970's showed that Mono Lake's ecosystems were collapsing. Islands that were safe for nesting birds became peninsulas, giving access to predators like coyotes. It's salinity levels doubled. It was clear that an important natural resource was dying.

The Mono Lake Committee was formed in 1978 and in 1979 joined with the Audubon Society and others to sue the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for violating the Public Trust Doctrine. This landmark case was known as National Audubon Society v. Superior Court.

It was not until 1983 that the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mono Lake and ordered that lake levels be returned to two-thirds it's original depth.

Photo:  TsaiProject

Reasonable and Beneficial

That water is a Public Trust resource is law. Article X, Section 2 of the California Constitution states that water is subject to "reasonable and beneficial use" and only water in excess of reasonable and beneficial use can be appropriated for other use, and no water is subject to waste or unreasonable use.

The Mono Lake case is as relevant today as ever. The State Water Resources Control Board administers appropriative water rights, meaning they approve water use and issue permits to divert water. It's their job to know if use they approve is "reasonable and beneficial" and if any diversion or use is wasteful or harmful. It's their job to act in the public interest. When the SWRCB licensed the DWP's diversion levels, it neglected to do the research necessary to make that determination. It was not until 1979, after a study done by Stanford University gained national attention, that the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Department of the Interior studied the Mono Basin and determined that the then current diversion levels threatened a Public Resource.

History Repeats Itself

Governor Brown's Twin Tunnels Project is like déjà vu all over again—at an unprecedented scale. Mono Lake is a puddle compared to the California Delta. The Delta supplies fresh water to 25 million people. The Tunnels will divert source water from the Delta to large corporate farms. The burden of it's estimated $69 billion cost will fall to California ratepayers who will see none of that water. No one knows how much or if water can be safely diverted from the Delta because the research has not been done. Sound familiar?

C-WIN is raising the money to that research. We're doing the work our public agencies will not. A comprehensive assessment of the California Delta and the Public Trust Doctrine will ensure that our public agencies act in the public interest and protect the Delta for all Californians.