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Taking the environment to court: National Audubon Society v. Superior Court


Since the days of Mulholland and his acquisition of the Owens Valley River, Los Angeles has been engaging in water “stealing” (as many would imply) to supplement its rapidly growing population. In 1940, Los Angeles DWP was granted permits to use four out of the five tributaries of Mono Lake for municipal use and hydropower, but the aqueduct was not constructed until 1963. In 1979, the same year of the case, the CDWR and the USDI conducted a joint study of the water resources in the Mono Basin – this resulted in legislation that recommended the reduction of the water use, yet it never was enacted. Water is a scarce resource in Los Angeles, and it is no wonder that the city has gone to great lengths to secure water rights from diverse sources. This court case was originally against the Los Angeles Superior Court, but was transferred to the Superior Court when the federal agencies were included.

I agree with the decision made, and I think that it was an important precedent in enforcing the public trust doctrine in expanding water rights for the common good. The fact that the case allowed for the expansion of the public trust doctrine to include ecological sites for scientific study is very significant, because any step in the direction of preservation for the sake of intrinsic benefit and scientific research is imperative in helping to promote sustainable development for the future. Even though Los Angeles did receive the correct permits to use the water, there is the issue of sustainable use of water resources. Overuse of the reservoir, just as with Owens Valley, would harm both parties involved, as Los Angeles receives less water over time and the environment will suffer great loss of life. Los Angeles has many sources of water, and the impacts on the Mono Lake ecosystem and even the delta in Mexico are too great to ignore just for the sake of honoring permits granted without proper consideration of environmental impacts.

A great deal of attention is dedicated to the unique Mono Lake ecosystem, including the hundreds of migratory birds that only use that lake for nesting grounds, and brine shrimp in the lake itself. This ruling was important because it not only protected the immediate inhabitants of Mono Lake, it also ensured better water quality for tributaries and extending to Mexico. Los Angeles’s use of the water to such an extreme created dangerous salinity concentrations in the lake, which meant that downstream waters also suffered from increased salinity, thus worsening the living situation for many organisms. Due to the highly interconnected nature of waterways, this ruling was not only in the best favor of the Audubon Society, but also of all neighboring ecosystems and inhabitants.

Lastly, this case is an example of a party taking a public good and turning it into a public utility for another region, basically making it a private good in the eyes of the constituents being wronged. The traditional use of the public trust doctrine worked as it was supposed to, in this aspect, because it returned the waters to being a public good. Overall, the ruling in favor of the plaintiff in this case was justifiable and a significant win in the fight for environmental protection and sustainable development.


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© 2019 Richelle Tanner

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