Mono Lake Decision Marks Sea Change in California Water Wars

WHOEVER takes the reins in California politics after Nov. 8 will inherit the most complicated resource issue in the American West: how to divvy up the state's limited water supply.

The state that produces half the nation's fruits and vegetables is also trying to cope with the addition of 800,000 residents a year using ``the most hotly contested and convoluted system of water delivery in the world,'' in the words of one official.

Because the strain on the system has soared in recent years with a seven-year drought that has decimated bird and fish populations in the water-rich north, a new policy to restore the ecological balance of a major water source in the south is being heralded as a watershed in the state's perennial water wars.

Mono Lake, a delicate, million-year-old lake that has been sucked down by half since 1941 for water use in Los Angeles, will be allowed to rise back to its former height (6,391 ft. above sea level). The move is expected to take 20 years, during which hundreds of thousands of nesting birds will return.

``I didn't think I would ever see something like this in my lifetime,'' says Jim Moore, retired chief of resources for the US Bureau of Land Management. Audubon Society western region representative Dan Taylor called it ``the environmental victory of a lifetime.''

Ending 16 years of litigation, the State Water Resources Control Board announced in September that the agreement had finally been ironed out between environmentalists and Los Angeles water authority.

After the city began diverting water from four streams flowing into Lake Mono in 1940, the lake dropped 46 ft., exposing shores and increasing salt content, which damaged shrimp, gull, and other fish and bird populations. Los Angeles had unlimited rights to Mono basin water and exported an average of 92,000 acre ft. a year until a court order halted diversions in 1989. (An acre-ft. is 325,872 gallons, about what two urban households of four use in one year.)

THE new state order signals a fundamental change of heart by state policymakers, possibly heralding others to follow.

``To reallocate water from urban to environment is unprecedented in this state,'' says Allen Garcia, a rice farmer and board member for the Northern California Water Association. He says the new measure eases major tensions between north - where 80 percent of the state's water originates - and south - where 80 percent is used. Farmers, who use three-quarters of the state's water, have faced mandatory reductions in their alloments in recent years.

Estimates of Los Angeles' loss are $17.9 million in water and $5.6 million in power. But city residents are expected to get help from state and federal conservation and reclamation assistance programs.

Gov. Pete Wilson (R), has also signed legislation that will give Los Angeles $36 million over the next four years to develop more supplies. The bill includes funding for the East San Fernando Valley Water Reclamation project, scheduled to begin in 1996, which will provide 35,000 acre ft. of recycled water annually for irrigation and industrial uses.

The US Bureau for Reclamation has also announced allotments of $5.3 million this year and $8.3 million next year for Los Angeles water-reclamation projects.

``We are on our way to a new environmental ethic, a new way of supplying water,'' says City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. ``And I hope a new era of California politics.''

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