Jim Canaday

Saving the Oldest Lake in California

Recorded: March 14, 2013

Mono Lake, the oldest lake in California, was once a source of water that was diverted to Los Angeles. In 1978, the Mono Lake Committee waged a battle to save the lake from being completely drained. Jim Canaday was the Senior Environmental Scientist with the California State Water Resources Control Board responsible for overseeing the restoration of Mono Lake.  Jim tells a story about how the state finally recognized the Public Trust in the 1994 landmark "Audubon Decision".

A defender of the Public Trust, Jim Canaday is a nationally recognized expert and has taught many natural resource professionals about water law water rights, natural resources, and the regulatory water environment in California. He taught for almost 30 years at American River College in Sacramento. As a Lecturer he has taught upper division and graduate courses at CSU Sacramento, UC Davis and UC Cooperative Extension. He has been a presenter at many conferences and symposia in the west on natural resource issues.

Jim is a retired Senior Environmental Scientist for the California State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board). He retired from this position in 2007.  In this capacity, he participated in many complex water rights decisions by the State Water Board. Most notably, Jim was the lead scientist-project manager for the State Water Board’s 1994 public trust decision that ordered the City of Los Angeles to reduce its diversions from the Mono Basin and established protective lake elevations while ordering restoration of the stream and waterfowl habitats in the Mono Basin. He has worked on the Mono Lake issues for 20 years prior to his retirement. He oversaw the State Water Board ordered restoration activities in the Mono Basin until he retired.

Mr. Canaday has received numerous conservation awards from: California Trout, the Golden Trout Award and Streamkeeper Award; American Fisheries Society (Cal Neva Chapter); the Sierra Nevada Alliance; and the Mono Lake Committee – Defender of the Trust. He has received commendations from: American Whitewater and the State Water Resources Control Board.

Also, Jim has a life-long interest in the California naturalist and wilderness protector, John Muir, his life, philosophy and legacy. He taught a college course on the “Life and Legacy of John Muir”. He has also lectured at other colleges about Muir.

Jim Canaday:    These are long-term fights, long-term issues and you have to be – you have to pick your battles. But when you decide that one is right, then you have to understand it’s a full time commitment and it’s worthwhile.  At the end of your career, you want to look back and say, “I made a difference.”

The State [California] issued water rights permits to divert water out of the streams that, or tributary to Mono Lake, which is a closed basin, saline –alkaline saline — lake over on the east side of the Sierra’s. Even though it’s the freshest water in California coming off granite, there’s still minerals in that water, and the lake is a million years old or roughly a million years old.

Each year the water evaporates, those salts are conserved; so over time, the lake has become salty. [In] 1941 the state approved water rights for the City of Los Angeles to take Mono Lake water and put it in the existing aqueduct that was already built to take water to the City of Los Angeles.  They had additional rights that they finally built a second — what they call a second barrel; so they could now fully take their total water right and it dropped the lake 45 vertical feet. The lake became two times as salty as the ocean.  And the ecosystem that was there, which was a very productive ecosystem in the lake, there was no way to tell when that crash would occur, but you knew it was going to occur as the lake dropped.

There was a group of graduate students from UC Davis and Berkeley scattered around the country that came together and spent a summer studying the lake.  And what they came up with at the end of the summer was that this lake was in jeopardy.  One of the scientists, young scientists working there — a fellow named David Gaines — he and his wife formed the Mono Lake Committee and that became the voice of trying to save or protect Mono Lake.

You get into the 1980s and the lake is still dropping.  They filed a lawsuit — the National Audubon Society filed a lawsuit  — and that’s why its called the Audubon Decision. That was a State Supreme Court [decision] and they ruled on the idea of the Public Trust, which up until that time it had never — a court had never really said the State has an obligation to protect and manage those natural resources for the public because the public owns it.  So the Audubon Decision said, no, the State Water Board should go back and look at their previous decisions to determine if in fact what public resources are being impacted and what could be done to protect them.   At the same time, there were other court decisions that addressed the fisheries and the streams.  And one of the decisions required that the streams be restored and the fisheries recovered to the extent that they existed in 1941.  But nothing was getting done to make the decision of how the lake was going to be managed and what was going to be done.

The Water Board decided, which was unusual for the time, to take the project on.  Instead of just looking at the streams that the court ordered, they decided we’re going to look at the whole issue, which in a sense the Audubon Decision in 1984 said that the board should do.  So in 1989 we started the process of looking at… developing the information and looking at what resources had been lost, how the City of Los Angeles was using the water today, and that if we tried to bring resources –Public Trust resources back, what did that mean, in the reduction of water to the City of Los Angeles?

We were successful, And I think part of the reason why we were successful is that I tried, and I think I was successful, making the analysis science-based.  My experience in resource decision making in California; there are four elements that go into a resource decision. The first three are not in any particular order; politics, economics and emotions.  The fourth, which is always the fourth, is natural resources or things of the public trust.  And what we tried to do in the Mono Lake Decision using science was to push that fourth– you can’t escape the first three– but to push the fourth as high as we could in the mix of those other three and we felt if we did that, the information would be compelling and we’d get a wiser decision, and I believe we did.