This week's post is a guest post from Greg Reis of the Mono Lake Committee.
Growing up in Southern California, my sister and I often felt bored. We just wanted interesting things to happen.
Storms were interesting. When heavy rain caused flooding, whether it was a flooded parking lot that we rode our bikes through, or cars splashing through flooded intersections, or watching muddy brown water racing through concrete channels, or even watching El Niño-amplified waves batter piers into the sea, we wanted to experience it.
Droughts weren’t very interesting—day after day of boring blue-sky weather—but they produced interesting news and discussion. My entire four years of high school consisted of drought—the longest drought in decades, eventually lasting 6 years (really 8 years with one wet year near the end). So when I had to write a research paper in high school, I picked the topic of LA’s water supplies.
In the late 1980s, it seemed like the only California water paradigm that got published, at least in the mainstream news and in the libraries available to me, was the building of aqueducts to meet the growing water needs of a growing population. The logical conclusion of my paper was, of course, that we should build an aqueduct to the Columbia River, where there is more water than we’d ever need. I now cringe at the idea. I didn’t come across many references to the ecosystems that were already being destroyed by the three aqueducts feeding LA. I don’t think I even mentioned ecosystems in my paper at all. I don’t think I even considered that a new aqueduct would cause ecological problems. I didn’t come across Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner, until a few years later in a Lone Pine visitor center on a trip to Mt. Whitney. That book changed my world by opening my eyes to the natural riches California has (hopefully just temporarily) lost through waste and mismanagement.
In retrospect, it makes sense that I didn’t think about ecosystems, since LA is a concrete world engineered so that no one has any idea where their resources come from—unless they investigate. I remember as a child subscriber to National Geographic World, a kid’s magazine, reading about Mono Lake shrinking due to excessive water diversions into the LA Aqueduct. I thought it was incredibly wrong and unfair for LA to dry up Mono Lake.
Vacations were interesting too. On our vacations and weekend trips we often visited dams like Shasta and Hetch Hetchy, and we camped at reservoirs like Cachuma and Skinner. We also visited National Parks like Sequoia and Yosemite. The first time I saw Mono Lake was on the way to Yosemite, when I was 8 years old, and we stopped for gas in Lee Vining. I remember thinking it was cool that the islands were volcanoes. But the thing that impressed me the most on that trip was seeing that climbers could scale Yosemite Valley’s vertical walls, in the most beautiful place I had ever seen.
When I was in college, a nonprofit citizen’s group I had never heard of called the Mono Lake Committee sent me an invitation to become a member. But I had heard of an inspirational and meaningful event it put on every year—the Bike-A-Thon, a bike ride from LA to Mono Lake, in which riders would return a vial of water from Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) headquarters to the lake.
By then, I had become a peak climber, belonged to many environmental groups, and was getting a degree in natural resources management. I wanted to live in the Eastern Sierra because there was so much public land to explore. I joined the Mono Lake Committee, and I got hooked on the readable and informative Mono Lake Newsletter. A year later I read about the State Water Board protecting Mono Lake when it issued Decision 1631, and the summer after that I had an internship with the Mono Lake Committee.
I have now worked for the Mono Lake Committee for 19 ½ years since that summer—16 of those years living in the Mono Basin, at the north end of the LA Aqueduct, within biking distance of Yosemite. For over a decade I have been leading tours of the northern end of the aqueduct. I have spent the last two decades planting trees, restoring and monitoring Mono Lake’s recovering tributary streams, and advocating for ecological flows downstream of the aqueduct—flows required by the 1994 Decision 1631. I have assisted with hydrologic analyses that have been used in three different settlement agreements, two of which were with LADWP, and all of which resulted in more natural stream flows below Mono Basin dams.
The LA Aqueduct has had a central role in my life, not only due to my work for the Mono Lake Committee, and my play in the cool waters of the Eastern Sierra, but also through the growth and development of the LA area where I was born and raised. It is gratifying to work for a solution-oriented organization that helps LA solve its water problems through water conservation and recycling. LA has actually gained water out of saving Mono Lake, by trading Mono Basin water for local sustainable supplies. Interesting things are happening in California water, and The Longest Straw is by far one of the most interesting, accessible, and educational ways to communicate about LA’s water supplies that I’ve seen. We need inspirational endeavors like this one that connect us to our sustenance, our heritage, our history—and our future. Backpacking the length of the LA Aqueduct? Well, that is about as interesting and exciting and audacious a project as the Bike-A-Thon, or scaling the walls of Yosemite. And it might even be able to get the attention of bored Southern California teenagers (like the one I used to be) who have no idea where their water comes from.