THE roar of water rushing down Lee Vining Creek is deafening, drowning out the cry of a red-tailed hawk wheeling overhead. Warblers flit in the branches of aspens and cottonwoods that crowd the riverbanks.
These signs of life point to an environmental renewal of a creekbed that for much of the past 50 years had been a dry landscape of tumbleweeds and dying trees. The water flowing down from the nearby Sierra Nevada peaks had been channeled south to thirsty Los Angeles. Starved of water, the gray-green surface of Mono Lake in the volcanic basin below had shrunk to a fraction of its former expanse.
The restoration of this creek, along with about 100 miles of Sierra streams, and the resurrection of Mono Lake are a huge victory for environmentalists in California's long-running water wars. That triumph is now serving as a precedent for a new series of battles over watersheds, in California and throughout the country.
"This is the first case of water being reallocated from urban uses for environmental purposes," says Martha Davis, executive director of the Mono Lake Committee, which led the campaign to reverse the flow from the Sierras.
After 16 years of struggle in courts, hearing rooms, and streets, the committee and its allies, including the Audubon Society and trout fishermen, won a landmark decision in September 1994 forcing the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) to reverse the slow death of Mono Lake, the state's second-largest lake. Two years after the pioneering pact, one of America's most bizarre natural wonders has been transformed.
Los Angeles began diverting four of the streams that feed Mono Lake in 1941; by 1982 the level of the lake had dropped 45 feet. With about half as much water, the salinity of the alkaline waters had risen by 75 percent. Lush wetlands that bordered the lake disappeared along with the million migratory ducks, geese, and other birds.
The mineral-rich alkaline waters of Mono Lake are inhospitable to fish, but they create the lake's haunting tufa towers, formed out of calcium carbonate. These harsh waters also harbor teeming life - algae, tiny brine shrimp, and alkali flies that blacken its shores. These peculiar life forms are vital food for more than a million migratory and nesting birds. But the lake's increasing salinity threatened to upset that fragile ecology.
The 1994 decision mandated that Los Angeles reduce its diversion of water flowing into the lake until the lake reaches a stable level of 6,392 feet - 25 feet below its prediversion level. Since the decision, the Mono Lake already has risen almost 6 feet, with about 12 feet to go.
"Where else in California can you see an ecosystem that's improving," Ms. Davis says proudly, standing by a shoreline that only months ago had extended tens of feet out into the lake.
THE Mono Lake Committee is now working on restoring the creeks, wetlands, and other parts of the lost ecosystem, aided by its former foes at the DWP.
The ruling of the State Water Resources Control Board enforced two legal doctrines that are being used in other cases: the public trust doctrine, a Roman legal principle protecting navigable bodies of water for the use and benefit of all the people; and an ignored state fish and game code forbidding the destruction of fisheries by dams.
A 1983 California Supreme Court ruling extended the public-trust doctrine to apply to altering the water rights that Los Angeles had gained since the turn of the century in the eastern Sierras. Not only navigation but fishing, recreation, aesthetic, and ecological values were considered part of the public trust for the first time.
"The Mono Lake decision changed policy throughout the West - it's truly a phenomenal decision," says California deputy attorney general Mary Schoonover, who has represented the state in the Mono Lake case and other disputes. It has been applied in a limited way in some other states such as Idaho, she says. And in California it served as the basis for a broad agreement between state and federal agencies to preserve the flow of Sierra rivers into the San Francisco Bay delta to protect fish and other species.
The decision is also inspiring the struggle of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, representing some 25 California counties where the headwaters rivers of the Sierra originate, to preserve those watersheds from being drained by urban users. "If you can do it with the DWP, why can't half of the geographic area of California elbow themselves to the table?" says Michael Jackson, lawyer for the anglers' alliance.
But Ms. Schoonover warns against seeing lawsuits, such as the Mono Lake model, as a panacea for solving complex ecological and economic problems. "Lawsuits are not a quick fix, they are not an inexpensive fix, and they're not a guaranteed fix," she says.