Lee Vining Creek is the second largest stream in the Mono Lake Basin behind Rush Creek. Lee Vining Creek begins in the Ansel Adams Wilderness at 13,053 foot Mt. Dana and flows down the eastside of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The watershed also includes several small glaciers, the Warren Fork of Lee Vining Creek, and Gibbs Creek, which has half of its flow diverted for irrigation. Before dams were constructed to enlarge three natural lakes for hydropower, peak flows would reach up to 650 cfs at the height of snowmelt. The ability for Saddlebag Lake to store up to 11,080 acre-feet of runoff, Tioga Lake to store up to 1,250 acre-feet, and Ellery Lake to store up to 490 acre-feet has cut the maximum peak flow released below Ellery Lake to 475 cfs.
Where Lee Vining Creek reached the mouth of the glacial canyon (far below the steep drop below Ellery Lake), its floodplain broadened over alluvial deposits, allowing a multiple channel system to exist. These smaller channels provided a diversity of habitats supporting all trout life stages. The channels were narrow with frequent meanders, providing deep water habitat, undercut root wads, lateral scour pools, and abundant trout spawning gravels. Dense riparian cover along most of the creek provided cover, shade, stabilization of streambanks, rootwads, and fallen trees. High summer flows and cooler water temperatures served the aquatic ecosystem all the way to the delta in Mono Lake.
Shortly after 1850, Lahontan Cutthroat Trout were introduced into the fishless stream, and an abundant fishery existed by 1900. Brown trout and Rainbow trout were planted from the early 1900s until 1941, and by 1940 Brown trout were the most abundant species of fish. 8-10 inch trout were abundant, with some fish reaching 13-15 inches. Today the lower section below Ellery Lake is primarily a rainbow trout fishery and is regularly stocked by CDFW. While the section upstream of Ellery is mainly a brook trout fishery with the ocassion rainbow and brown to be found.
In 1941 diversion of water from Lee Vining Creek into the Los Angeles Aqueduct began. The Lee Vining Conduit diverts water from the stream at the diversion dam just upstream from the Lee Vining Ranger Station. After 1947, high runoff ceased and pasture irrigation ended, causing the stream to be virtually dry below the diversion dam. The canyon is narrow below the diversion dam to a point a half mile below Highway 395, and this kept soils moist enough for vegetation to survive. Below this point, vegetation declined rapidly, and was severely affected all the way to Mono Lake. In 1954 a fire consumed much of this dead and some live riparian vegetation. The stream was nearly or completely dewatered until a 1969 flood caused severe channel widening, migration, and incision.
In 1986, continuous low flows were obtained with a court order, and modest recovery of riparian vegetation occurred in places. (The low flow requirement resulted from a hard won legal battle leveled at LADWP by California Trout and the Mono Lake Committee.) A grazing moratorium started in 1991, allowing further recovery of vegetation. As of 1989, there were 60 acres of mature woody riparian vegetation - a loss of 50% of what existed before 1941. Today, groups such as Cal Trout and the Mono Lake Committee are restoring the stream to conditions prior to 1941. Rewatering channels, planting trees, and managing flows will all help to eventually restore the stream to a dynamic, functioning ecosystem.