Mono Lake Tribe Seeks To Assert Its Water Rights To Halt Water Diversions To Los Angeles

Via Inside Climate News, a look at efforts by the Kootzaduka’a to save their wtaer – and their cultural and natural heritage:

Against the backdrop of a severe drought linked with global warming, conservation advocates and Native Americans in California are calling for a temporary emergency stop to all surface water diversions from Mono Lake, contending that continuing to drain the watershed, along with the long-term drought, threaten critical ecosystems, as well as the Kootzaduka’a tribe’s cultural connection with the lake. 

In a pair of letters written in December 2022, the Mono Lake Committee and California Indian Legal Services claimed that Mono Lake’s water has dropped to a level requiring emergency action, and asked that all surface water diversions be curtailed until the lake’s elevation gets closer to an elevation of 6,392 feet. That was set as a protective level for Mono by the state in 1994, but the lake has never come close to reaching it.

The emergency request will be considered on Feb. 15 during a public workshop arranged by the California State Water Resources Control Board. The input session will be livestreamed and the public can sign up to watch and comment.

The “urgent and developing ecological crisis” threatens Mono Lake with “imminent harm,” Mono Lake Committee executive director Geoff McQuilkin wrote in a Dec. 16 letter to the state’s Division of Water Rights, asking the agency to suspend the “export of water diverted from Rush and Lee Vining creeks from the Mono Basin and requiring delivery of that water into Mono Lake.”

Writing on behalf of the Kootzaduka’a Tribe, which has lived in the area around Mono Lake for thousands of years, California Indian Legal Services attorney Michael Godbe supported the request in a Dec. 22 letter to the state water board. He asked that “all diversions be halted until the Lake reaches a level of at least 6384’ above sea level, at minimum, in order to prevent further deterioration of the Tribe’s cultural connection with the lake.”

Los Angeles Denies Emergency

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which drained Mono Lake’s ecosystem by diverting its tributary streams, responded to the Mono Lake Committee’s ecological concerns in a Jan. 11 letter to the board, but did not address the Kootzaduka’a Tribe’s concerns about its cultural connections to the unique watershed. 

“First and foremost, no ‘emergency conditions’ exist that would warrant an emergency regulation,” senior assistant general manager of LADWP’s water system Anselmo Collins wrote. The actions proposed by the Mono Lake Committee would  “likely violate LADWP’s procedural and substantive rights,” he added.

Mono, an ancient salt lake, is located in the high desert of Eastern California and replenished by several freshwater streams flowing out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The inflowing stream water maintained a balanced ecosystem for at least 1 million years, nurturing breeding and feeding birds, as well as Indigenous people, for millennia. 

That balance was disrupted in 1941 when Los Angeles started diverting millions of gallons of water from the watershed every year and sending it 300 miles south for municipal use through the Los Angeles Aqueduct without due consideration of Indigenous water rights or environmental protection.

A science-based grassroots effort to protect the lake started in the 1970s, and in 1983, the California Supreme Court ruled that Mono Lake’s public trust values must be considered in making decisions about allocating waters in the Mono Lake Basin, which includes the tributary streams. 

About 10 years later, the state water board finalized a restoration plan that limits diversions. It requires specific seasonal stream flows to rehabilitate streams, and also mandates that Mono must rise to an elevation of 6,392 feet, the lowest level deemed protective of the lake’s ecosystem. 

A Tribe Rising

The 1994 plan said the lake would reach that level in 20 years, but it was based on projections made before global warming started shriveling the Sierra Nevada snowpack with a multiyear drought. 

And it was finalized without meaningful consideration of the lake’s value as a cultural resource for the Kootzduka’a Tribe, Godbe wrote in his letter to the board. Prompt action is critical to protect the tribe’s “previously unconsidered” connection with the lake, he added.

Mono Lake and the five creeks that feed it have “indisputable cultural significance for the Mono Lake Kutzadika’a people,” he wrote. “In the words of the Tribe, ‘Kootzabaa’a (Mono Lake) is the physical, cultural and spiritual center of the Kootzaduka’a people.’”

The tribe’s position is that Los Angeles should not be allowed to continue to divert water each year “when the lake has failed to even once” reach the mandated level, “and all diversions must immediately cease until the Lake rises out of its current crisis.”

The tribe has about 90 members, mostly living around Mono Lake and in the wider region, and the cultural history of its subsistence relationship with the lake has been continuously passed down by tribal elders from generation to generation to the present. It’s been well-documented by historians, Godbe wrote. 

The collective gathering of the brine fly pupae that the tribe call kootzabe from Mono’s groves of spiky tufa—rocky spires that rise from the water—plays a central role in that history. The life cycle of the brine flies is intimately linked with the level of the lake and the freshwater flowing, because it’s the combination of those two things that form the tufa towers upon which the flies lay their eggs. 

“These tufa grove shallows are where the Tribe harvests kootzabe, as waves dislodge the puparium from the columns so that they float in the shallows and become available for harvest,” the tribal letter to the water board explained. “However, when the lake level recedes below the bottom of the tufa column, the flies cannot go underwater to lay eggs, and the Tribe cannot then harvest the fly pupae in the shallows.” 

The abundance of kootzabe was “life-sustaining to tribal members, who relied on the processed fly pupae as a source of protein to get them through the long cold winters,” but all previous mandates on stream flows and lake levels have “failed to formally or meaningfully involve the Tribe,” Godbe wrote. 

Without tribal representation, the restoration plan doesn’t “discuss or reflect a lake elevation that is meaningful to the Tribe. However, it is obvious that the Lake is in crisis and that an immediate cessation of water diversions is necessary for many reasons.” The threats to the Tribe’s cultural heritage and practices include a “hotter and drier climate.”

A Step Toward Environmental Justice and a Long-Term Solution

The Feb. 15 Mono Lake workshop could mark a step toward ensuring that the Kootzduka’a have a seat at the table in any future decisions on lake levels and stream flows, since the state water board recently adopted a statement that acknowledged past injustices in its proceedings and commits to being more inclusive in the future.

“This was a document that basically said that the State Water Board has operated from a very racist position, and that their decisions in the past have not considered Black, Indigenous and people of color, in any way,” Kootzaduka’a tribal elder Dean Tonnena said during an interview with Inside Climate News last year. “The tribe was a part of that. We commented and we are now engaged for an action plan.”

The water board adopted its Racial Equity Statement in November 2021. A subsequently developed action plan has been under formal consideration since January of this year, as a step “toward a future where race no longer predicts a person’s access to water or the quality of water resources they receive, where race does not predict professional outcomes for our employees, and where we consistently consider racial equity impacts before we make decisions …The Water Boards acknowledge and condemn inequities, past and present, in water quality, access, and affordability, and are proactively working to eliminate the structures and practices that perpetuate these inequities.”

The racial equity statement, while signed and approved, is just a piece of paper until it leads to actions, Tonnena said. “That plan is still being worked upon,” he said. “But it’s one way to make sure that we hold the State Water Board accountable.”

In its racial equity resolution, the State Water Board recognized the value of tribes’ “traditional ecological knowledge and historic experience with managing California’s water resources since time immemorial.” 

The tribe’s letter points out that its request to halt stream diversions “and for meaningful and appropriately timed consideration of its perspective and interests” is aligned with the state water board’s resolution, which recognized a structural framework that perpetuated racial inequalities. “The omission of the Kutzadika’a Tribe in any formal or meaningful way from the hearings … certainly illustrates this history,” Godbe wrote.

“If the Board’s unanimously-supported commitments to equity and reconciliation for California’s native peoples are sincere, it must act with urgency to halt the degradations to Mono Lake from water diversions, and meaningfully involve the Tribe in finding long term solutions to the Lake’s current crisis.”

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 15th, 2023 at 5:48 am and is filed under Colorado River, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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