The Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners Tuesday approved a settlement agreement meant to resolve a decades-old water rights battle and restore the ecosystem of several Mono County streams that were once the home of a flourishing trout population.
Water from four streams flowing into Mono Lake were diverted in 1941 to Los Angeles -- 330 miles away -- through the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The streams subsequently dried up and the water level at Mono Lake fell more 40 feet, leading to the State Water Resources Control Board to issue orders in 1994 requiring that the Department of Water and Power restore water levels in the basin.
During the past 15 years, the DWP has begun returning water to the streams and the lake on an "interim" basis, but habitat conditions were still not optimal for fish populations. The upgrades to Grant Lake Dam would allow water to flow at the right levels for fish populations to thrive.
Lee Vining and Rush Creeks, two of the streams diverted to Los Angeles, "once supported some of the finest rainbow and brown trout fisheries in California," said Jeff Thompson, executive director of California Trout, a fisheries and water resources conservation group that is one of the parties in the agreement.
"Although the conditions of these Mono Lake tributaries have improved since their low point in the early 1980s, more work needs to be done to create lasting improvements," Thompson said.
As part of its pact with California Trout, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Mono Lake Committee, the Department of Water and Power agreed to split the cost on a $16 million upgrade to the Grant Lake Dam that will help regulate water flow and restore the quality of fish habitats in the basin.
The DWP will receive an additional 12,000 acre-feet of water, worth about $8 million, to offset the cost of making the improvements to the dam, which is located along Rush Creek, another stream affected by diversion to Los Angeles.
The decision Tuesday also includes legal assurances that would free DWP of future challenges over its water rights in the Mono Basin and its responsibilities for restoring the area's fish and wildlife habitats beyond what is laid out in the agreement.
The agreement follows 12 years of negotiations and scientific studies on how best to carry out the restoration of the Mono Basin streams and the water level at Mono Lake. Aside from the extra 12,000 acre feet of water, the agreement would not impact how much water goes to Los Angeles.
The partnership with the Mono Lake, fisheries and state groups "accommodates the concerns of the Mono Lake stakeholders in a manner that is respectful of the concerns of LA DWP's water customers for reliable and affordable water while providing certainty for all parties in the future," Department of Water and Power General Manager Ron Nichols said.
"We all look forward to what will be a new era of cooperation and a bright future for the four Eastern Sierra streams that flow into Mono Lake."
The State Water Resources Control Board, which issues water licenses, must still review the settlement agreement being included in an amended water diversion license for Los Angeles before giving its approval to it.