By Lee Foster
Mono Lake and its tufa spires appear like a mirage in the arid Sierra Mountains of California, east from Yosemite.
Mono Lake is a mirage in many ways. It did almost disappear. It has a spare appearance, but supports a fecund biological life that is almost invisible. It haunts us an example of what humans can do to destroy and later restore the natural environment. It is an uplifting example of what concerned citizens can accomplish, when they band together, to repair the errors of judgment made by the more rapacious forces in an earlier generation.
Mono Lake commands an iconic position in the story of California and U.S. environmental policy.
The struggle over Mono Lake involves water. Water shows the tufa towers reflected in majestic mirrors, especially at dawn and dusk. The tufa spires are limestone deposits created from calcium-bearing freshwater springs bubbling up through the lake’s carbon-rich, alkaline water. The tufa towers appear as otherworldly moonscape formations. Geology and volcanic activity are part of Mono Lake’s allure.
Water is the basis of much of the political struggle that is the modern reality in California. The desire for water is infinite, but the supply is finite, even in years of abundant rain. The huge population of California, especially in Southern California, requires water to survive and flourish. An opportunity to grow a copious supply of food in the fertile Central Valley of California depends on the political allotment of precious water. California is said to be the sixth largest economy in the world, especially if you include the agricultural sector. The amount of additional food that could be produced if water was in infinite supply is staggering.
Mono Lake’s unique ecosystem evolved over eons, long before the recent human intervention desiring to use and export the water. In these mineral-rich waters a species of brine fly and brine shrimp evolved. The flies, in their pupae form, as well as the shrimp, became a prime bird food. Legendary numbers of resident and migrating birds inhabit Mono Lake. The birds rest and nest on the tufa formations. The birds are protected from predators, such as coyotes, by the water barrier between the surrounding land and their tufa sanctuaries.
More than 70 species of birds feed on the explosive populations of flies and shrimp. The populations of the migrating bird species here are huge, estimated at about 2 million birds per year from 35 species. Especially large numbers of phalaropes congregate in July-August. Eared-grebes abound August-October.
Small populations of Native Americans formerly inhabited the area seasonally. They were called the Kutzadikaa, which may have meant “fly eater.” They lived by eating the larvae of the flies. The word Mono derives from the name of a Native American group in the region, the Monachi.
Into this situation stepped a politically powerful player, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which secured the water rights to the Owens River Valley and Mono Lake. They proceeded to divert the five freshwater streams emptying from the Sierra Nevada into Mono Lake. They sent the water to the ever-thirsty Southland. As the water level dropped, more tufa islands became accessible from land. Coyotes ate the birds. Bird populations crashed. The increased salinity of the water also threatened the existence of the brine flies and shrimp.
Public outrage took a while to galvanize, but eventually advocates won a Supreme Court decision requiring the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to restore the inbound streams and surface water levels at Mono Lake. The water situation is now stable and the habitat is repairing itself slowly. Mono Lake gradually replenishes itself, moving upward from its 1982 low point. However, public vigilance will always be warranted, especially as California faces drought periods. Birds, brine flies, brine shrimp, salmon, and other species throughout California may be far more numerous than humans in the Golden State, but they do not vote.
Today, most visitors to Mono Lake will see it first from the Highway 120 overlook after crossing the glorious, granite high country of Yosemite National Park and exiting the park. Stop at the Mono Lake overlook at the juncture of Highways 120/395 to survey the scene. There is signage at the overlook that begins to tell the story of Mono Lake.
Once on Highway 395, there is an excellent Inyo Forest Service interpretive center, well worth a stop. The center is a half mile north at Lee Vining on the east side of the highway. The interpretive center has detailed information on Mono Lake. The Forest Service is the governing unit with primary responsibilities for Mono Lake.
Your best access point for a walk at Mono Lake is at the South Tufa Area. Turn off Highway 395 immediately south of the 120/395 juncture on the first gravel road east to access the area. Rangers give interpretive walks along the South Tufa Area trails. You can also walk the trails on your own. Kayak trips amidst the tufa spires can be arranged by Caldera Kayaks (http://www.calderakayak.com). The guides are competent naturalists, adding a great deal to the experience.
Mono Lake is north of the Mammoth Lakes and Bishop areas, which have many interesting sights to consider, including the Devils Postpile basalt formations, the bristlecone pine trees (oldest living things on earth), and the Mammoth backcountry (accessible by horseback and by hiking).
The east side of the Sierra Mountains is relatively more arid than the west side, due to the fact that the moisture-laden clouds from the Pacific hit the mountains and drop much of their precipitation on the western flanks. Aspen groves throughout the region offer lovely tableaus of golden and red color the first week of October, especially in the Bishop Creek watersheds and lakes west of Bishop.
Mono Lake: If You Go
The Mono Lake Committee is actively engaged in protecting the lake. See their efforts at http://www.monolake.org/.
Part of Mono Lake is a California state park characterized as a natural reserve, with visitor access. See http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=514.
Inyo National Forest in the main government entity watching over Mono Lake. Visit their Interpretive Center and see more details at http://www.fs.usda.gov/inyo/.
The main tourism entity in the area is Mammoth Lakes Tourism at http://www.visitmammoth.com.
Yosemite National Park is immediately to the west. See park information at http://www.nps.gov/yose.