This article tells the epic tale of the fall and rise of Mono Lake — the strange and beautiful Dead Sea of California — which fostered some of the most important environmental law developments of the last century, and which has become a platform for some of the most potentially important developments in the new century. It shares the backstory and legacy of the California Supreme Court’s famous decision in National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, 658 P.2d 709 (Cal. 1983), known more widely as “the Mono Lake case.” Inspired by innovative legal scholarship and advocacy, the decision spawned a quiet legal revolution in public trust ideals, which has redounded to other states and even nations as far distant as India.
Mono Lake (BPG)
The Mono Lake dispute pitted advocates for the local ecosystem and community against proponents of the continued export of Mono Basin water to millions of thirsty Californians hundreds of miles to the south. The controversy itself spanned decades, but the story leading up to the litigation stretches back more than a hundred years, adding depth and dimension to the tale that is easily missed on a casual reading of the Audubon Society decision itself. It is a case study on the challenges and possibilities for balancing legitimate needs for public infrastructure and economic development with competing environmental values, all within systems of law that are still evolving to manage these conflicts. And at this particular moment in time, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct that would threaten the lake and the twentieth anniversary of the State Water Board’s ultimate decision to save it, the Mono Lake story is especially worth revisiting.
Part II introduces the main cast of characters in the Mono Lake story, starting with the public trust and prior appropriations doctrines around which the legal controversy unfolds. Part III introduces the three places at the center of the drama — Los Angeles, the Owens Valley, and the Mono Lake Basin — in recounting the history of the Californian water struggles leading up to the Mono Lake case. Part IV discusses the Audubon Society litigation itself and its aftermath, reviewing the court’s conclusion and the subsequent decision by the California Water Resources Control Board implementing the judicial directive. After analyzing the most important doctrinal developments in the opinion, it discusses subsequent critiques and new developments in public trust law.
Part V concludes with parting reflections about important questions that the Mono Lake story leaves us to ponder, including whose interests count when we talk about the “public” trust, how they differ from aggregated private interests, and which to account for when balancing the economic, cultural, and environmental considerations in public trust conflicts. It considers the extent to which the doctrine creates substantive or procedural obligations, and the responsibilities of different legal actors and institutions in implementing them. The contested answers to these questions are what make the public trust doctrine so fascinating, so powerful, and so critical as we continue to confront the inevitable crises between competing natural resource values.