Advocates: Don’t let L.A. drink from Mono Lake

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La May 30, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Southern California Gas Company, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Politifest 2023

Advocates: Don’t let L.A. drink from Mono Lake

With the Sierra Nevada snowpack reaching historic levels this year, state officials and residents sounded the alarm that the snowpack melt could trigger “ghost lakes” to expand and cause devastating floods. The rising water levels at Tulare Lake garnered particular attention, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop by the area in April to discuss emergency preparedness.

But the melting snowpack also has environmental and tribal groups drawing attention to the smaller, saltier Mono Lake, nestled between Yosemite Valley and the Nevada border. As CalMatters’ water reporter Alastair Bland explains, rising water levels there aren’t expected to flood nearby areas. But they may give the lake’s iconic ecosystem a chance to recover — if the State Water Resources Control Board allows.

Mono Lake’s surface elevation is currently around 6,380 feet, and has never risen much past 6,385 in the past 30 years. It’s still seven feet below a target recovery level, established in 1994, of 6,392 feet. With the snow melt, however, the Mono Lake Committee, the basin’s leading advocacy group, estimates the lake will rise another four feet in 2023. The committee is requesting the board to pause water diversions from the lake — specifically by Los Angeles — to “lock in these gains.”

The basin’s indigenous residents, namely the Kutzadika’a tribe, also want their needs considered. One Kutzadika’a botanist said “a racist legacy” has led to the lowering of the lake and still compromises his people’s connection to the ecosystem.

But the powerful Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is pushing back. Serving more than 4 million people, the department’s water mostly comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Colorado River and the Eastern Sierra. In recent years, water diversions from the Mono Basin have amounted to only between 1% and 3.5% of its total supplies. 

Still, buying that Mono water from elsewhere would cost $44 million per year, the department says. It would also increase environmental pressure on “already-strained systems” and compromise “the basic human right to water” for Los Angeles residents. The agency also argues that water diversions do not compromise the basin’s ecosystem and that its salinity levels have remained within the acceptable range to support its invertebrate life for the past several decades.  

But with many alternatives to sustainable water sources available, including recycled wastewater and uncaptured stormwater, environmentalists say the department’s reluctance to give up Mono Lake is frustrating.

  • Bruze Reznik, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper: “That’s the funny thing — it’s such a drop in the bucket. I think the department recognizes they don’t need the water, but they just keep it because they have a right to it.”

The State Water Resources Control Board has remained generally quiet on the issue. A supervising engineer with the board told Alastair that the agency plans to hold a hearing to discuss its options, but a timeline was not specified.

California’s water crisis, explained: CalMatters has a detailed look at how California might increase its water supply, and a dashboard tracking the state’s water situation. There’s a lesson-plan-ready version of the water explainer — especially made for teachers, libraries and community groups — as part of the CalMatters for Learning initiative.


A new leader for CalMatters: Eight years into our mission of providing nonpartisan news and analysis for California, CalMatters is getting a new editor in chief — Kristen Go, who starts today. She was formerly vice president and executive editor for news and initiatives at USA Today. Read more about her from our engagement team. Founding editor Dave Lesher is leading a new CalMatters effort to transform government accountability reporting.


1 CA Dems vet Senate hopefuls, fete Pelosi

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Provocations for Florida and Texas to “eat your heart out;” rallying cries to protect reproductive freedom; anxieties about “the soul of our nation.” California Democrats were in full force and pageantry over the weekend as their four-day annual party convention took over the Los Angeles Convention Center.

In attendance were Gov. Newsom, the three leading Democratic candidates to replace U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein next year — Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Katie Porter of Irvine and Adam Schiff of Burbank — high-profile Democratic officials and 2,500 other delegates.

Though there was some dissension in the ranks, particularly among progressives who take issue with Newsom’s lack of action on single payer healthcare, the convention unfolded much as CalMatters state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal expected, with three main takeaways.

“Don’t agonize, organize!” was this year’s convention theme. To rile up its base for the 2024 election, officials blasted its favorite bogeyman Donald Trump, the former president and current frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination. Democrats also emphasized the need to organize and win in 2024. Because of drops in turnout among key constituencies, the party lost some congressional races, leading to the Republicans control of the U.S. House.

Three Senate hopefuls courted their fellow party members. Lee highlighted her history of supporting social justice causes and her unique perspective, as there are no Black women serving in the U.S. Senate. Porter pitched her willingness to “shake up Washington.” Finally, Schiff touted his experience during Trump’s impeachment, his endorsement from Rep. Nancy Pelosi and hosted a comedy night where he roasted Republican politicians.

Delegates paid tribute to Pelosi of San Francisco. As the first female speaker of the U.S. House, the speaker-emerita gave a speech to delegates on Saturday, going after D.C. Republicans and encouraging the mobilization of voters.

2 When a town loses its prison

A shuttered business in Blythe on May 8, 2023. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
A shuttered business in Blythe on May 8, 2023. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

To the residents of Blythe, Chuckawalla Valley State Prison is its lifeblood. 

As the town’s second-largest employer, it provides about 800 jobs, more than half as prison guards. But with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s plan to close the prison by March 2025, the already struggling desert city will be in deeper peril, writes CalMatters’ criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara.

Sitting along Interstate 10, Blythe was once an important railway stop and agricultural boomtown. When its economy withered in the ’70s, the state built the prison in 1988. For 35 years, the facility provided well-paying jobs with state benefits. 

But with his goal to change California’s prison system and reduce its population, Newsom is eyeing Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, as well as two others in small towns, to close.

For a city, population 18,000, that one June 2022 report found to be struggling to pay its bills and retain its residents, the closure will further debilitate its flailing economy. Younger residents especially, told Nigel they don’t plan on staying much longer.

  • Maricruz Barela, a 20-year-old restaurant server: “I’m only here because of college and my mom. There’s nothing, we don’t have nothing.”

In response, the city hired a PR firm to launch a publicity campaign to “Save Chuck” from closing. And the state is floating a few proposals, including propping up existing businesses with state dollars, setting up career training and providing free consulting to impacted small businesses.

Whether or not any of those measures will be enough to save Blythe remains unclear. And Interim City Manager Mallory Crecelius knows that the clock is ticking until legislators have to pass the final budget in June.


CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Gov. Newsom wants to decarbonize California’s economy, but he needs to change the California Environmental Quality Act for big public works projects.

A bonus Walters: Despite how Newsom hits Ron DeSantis, both California and Florida use schools to fight the culture wars.

A new law targeting “pay-to-play” could help root out local corruption, writes its author, state Sen. Steve Glazer, an Orinda Democrat.


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CA’s cliffs are crumbling as climate change reshapes the coast // The Washington Post

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