Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Another Story about Dick

-- by Sara

I'll step in here and second Dave's recommendation below of Rebecca Solnit's excellent piece on the devastating implications of the ongoing disconnect between arrogant urban environmentalists and (often justly) suspicious locals. I'd also like to offer, by way of example, a tale of how well this can work when it does work, and why it's so important to bridge this gap -- a long-ago episode in which the participation of one smart local gave environmentalists the piece they needed to win a battle that ultimately affected the entire ecosystem of the West Coast.

I grew up not far south of Mono Lake, a vast salt-water lake that's wedged in between Yosemite's eastern Tioga Pass gate and the California-Nevada border. Mono is one the continent's most ancient lakes -- a strange, sere and otherworldy landscape marked by lumpy columns of tufa, water so salty you simply float on it, and more birds than you've ever seen in one place in your life. (High Plains Drifter and Alien Planet were both filmed on Mono's shoreline, which gives you some idea.)

Remote and bizarre as it is, the lake plays a defining role in the life cycle of hundreds of migrating bird species. It's a major north-south migration depot that's relied on by birds migrating all the way from South America to Alaska. It's too salty for fish, but rich with algae, brine shrimp, and brine flies, which the birds rely on to fuel their further flight. Two large islands in the lake's center also served as the predator-free breeding grounds for about a third of California's seagulls (the rest are hatched at the Great Salt Lake -- the only two places these iconic coastal birds breed). An experienced birder could spent a weekend at Mono in June and add 70 or more birds to his or her life list. (I know, because I've done it.)

It was the birds that first brought a quiet young ornithologist, David Gaines, to the lake in the early 1970s. After he finished his degree at UC Davis, he moved to the lakeside town of Lee Vining (pop. about 250 at the time) to settle in and spend his life studying the lake's birds, and the larger ecology that supported them.

Gaines was the first one to notice that the lake was in serious ecological trouble. Millions of humans depend on Mono Lake, too: in 1941, it was appended as the new northern terminus of the long aqueduct system that brings the eastern Sierra's water to the taps of Los Angeles. The city had diverted four of the lake's five feeder streams into the aqueduct, leaving only one to feed the lake. About 15% of LA's water supply came from these four streams.

The one remaining creek wasn't enough to sustain the ecosystem, and evaporation did the rest. By the late 1970s, the lake had shrunk by a third. The surface level had dropped 45 feet, exposing a land bridge between the shore and the gulls' main breeding island that allowed coyotes to come across and devastate the chick population. The water doubled in salinity, to the point where it was getting too salty to sustain the algae and the brine shrimp. The hundreds of bird species that depended on the lake as a migration stop were arriving to find there were fewer safe places to rest, and less and less to eat. The loss of those birds would, in turn, affect ecosystems thousands of miles away. Mono Lake, we were learning the hard way, was an essental keystone in the ecology of the entire West.

Gaines formed an environmental organization, The Mono Lake Committee, to raise money for a legal fight to challenge LA's water diversions. The Audubon Society and the Sierra Club lent their support to the battle; and a noted San Francisco law firm volunteered to take on the case pro bono. Environmentalists in both Los Angeles and the San Francisco area went on high alert. Ultimately, the city of Los Angeles was sued for refusing to file the required environmental impact reports, for violating air quality standards (the alkaline dust rising off the exposed shoreline created horrific air pollution), and for whatever else the environmental attorneys could think of. Millions of dollars were raised. State officials were taken on tours of the lake. A public awareness campaign put "Save Mono Lake" bumper stickers on cars all over the west.

But the city of LA, which had gotten its way in the Eastern Sierra for 75 years, fought back hard. They had money, momentum, and nothing but time on their hands. What they didn't reckon -- what nobody on either side reckoned -- was the winter of 1982, which turned into the wettest winter anybody had ever seen.

There was so much water coming down the Sierra's eastern mountainsides that year that the aqueduct couldn't take it all. The LA Department of Water & Power was left with no choice but to let some of it run back down into the four Mono Lake feeder streambeds, none of which had seen anything but trickles in over 40 years. And that -- though nobody realized it at the time -- was the beginning of the end.

My mother, who was the water commissioner for the next county south of the lake (which was also suing the DWP for other reasons) still remembers the meeting. David was there, along with officials from Mono County, attorneys from San Francisco, and various concerned locals. It was their regular public task force meeting to coordinate strategy on all the various lawsuits both counties and the Mono Lake Committee had in play. In the middle of the discussion, one good old boy -- that would be our only Dick, a retired geezer who was a stalwart of the local fishing club -- stood up and asked to be heard.

"We've got 'em where we want 'em now," he declared.

We do? The commissioners, lawyers, and activists looked at him, puzzled and expecting an unnecessary digression from the matters at hand. Dick was known as concerned citizen -- but was not, shall we say, noted for his keen command of the issues.

"Yep. We do. The state fisheries law says you can't turn the water out of a stream if there's fish in it. All four of those creeks have fish in them now. So they can't take that water back out again."

Everybody suddenly woke up. This guy had to be kidding.

"No -- here it is." Dick fished a crumpled piece of folded yellow-pad paper out of his pocket, and read aloud the pertinent piece of an obscure early 1900's state fisheries code -- which he'd copied down, chapter and verse. The San Francisco lawyers scribbled furiously. The commissioners sat, stunned. The activists suppressed huge whoops of glee.

Dick was right. The lawyers went back to their Bay Area offices and quickly confirmed that that old code was still in force; and that there was no legal way the DWP could take the water back out of those streams, ever. The whole direction of the fight was transformed in that moment. From that time forward, the negotiation was not whether or not LA had the right to take the water; but how much water they'd be allowed to divert each year and still maintain the fisheries.

The battle for Mono Lake ground on for another ten years. But those who were involved with it remember the moment that old Dick stood up as the turning point. Until then, the legal argument had turned on enforcing the new bushel of environmental laws passed in the early 1970s. Nobody had thought to research the pertinent fish and wildlife or boating laws, some of which dated back into the 19th century. But those were the legal precedents that ultimately won the fight.

Once they were onto the fish-protection law, the attorneys kept digging -- and soon uncovered a another large body of old "public trust" laws that covered navigable rivers and lakes. In the end, the state Supreme Court ruled that Mono Lake was subject to the public trust laws regarding navigable waters; and that the DWP would also have to maintain and restore the fish habitat. In 1994, the State Water Resources Board ordered the city of Los Angeles to reduce diversions until the lake is returned a sustainable level and the habitats are restored. The lake level is now rising at about a foot a year, and is expected (barring drought) to meet a sustainable level by about 2015. The victory is still fragile, as both LA and other western states try to undermine the laws that supported the state's decisions; but for now, the lake is on track to be saved.

David Gaines didn't live to see that victory. He was killed in a truck accident in January 1988, leaving behind his wife and a baby girl. He was a friend, and I still think of him whenever I see the many birds -- nighthawks, jaegers, buntings, plovers, and wrens -- he taught me to find. But the fight he waged to save Mono Lake ended up saving the local economy as well. It put Lee Vining on the map as a tourist destination drawing photographers, hikers, and birders from all over the world. The town has more than doubled in size thanks to him. There are good jobs to be had in the restaurants, hotels, and interpretive centers -- all of which exist because this shy introvert who was far more comfortable with birds than people took on the monumental task of educating the country about the lake's unique ecological role.

Dave's work was embraced by the locals because his research and interpretive skills gave them a new and broader respect and reverence for a place they already loved. Though he could easily hae been the very kind of evil urban environmentalist that rural towns dread, he proved that this antagonism isn't inevitable. Dave didn't come on like an outsider coming in to show them a better way. His approach was more like that of a young, bookish pastor who made a permanent commitment to the community, and chose the place to be his own home. His job was to win hearts and minds for the preservation of the lake -- and he understood that the first piece of that task was winning over the souls of Lee Vining and Mono County.

That's why Dave would have been the first to give credit for the victory to the locals. He'd have told you about the courageous Mono and Inyo county commissioners who were game to take on LA City Hall, and stayed the course even when the legal fights threatened to drain the finances of those sparsely-populated counties. And he'd have special praise for the fishermen and hunters like Dick, who realized that the fight for the lake was their fight, too -- and then supplied the legal sling and stones that ultimately helped this particular David defeat the biggest Goliath in the country. If it hadn't been for the wider viewpoint provided by these locals, it's quite possible that the legal battle for Mono Lake would still be going on today.

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