Up The Road: Mono Lake

Jun 27, 2019

Moon over Mono Lake
Credit Robert Shea / Flickr

Today we continue up the road on US Route 395 to Mono Lake, 750,000 years old and an ecological marvel in the dramatic eastern shadow of the Sierra Nevada.

Nothing at Mono Lake is all that impressive, at first, especially if you’ve been smitten by the eastern Sierra Nevada’s craggy granite peaks, crystal-blue lakes, and all that snow and blue sky. Big, gray lake sprouting freeform white towers of tufa, or calcium carbonate, giving the place a craters-of-the-moon look; highly alkaline, salty water; sometimes an odd smell complete with flies and the endless swirl of seagulls; and a sparse day-old stubble of sage all around. 

Early settlers considered the lake “dead,” but native people knew better. They observed the huge seagull populations nesting here in spring—85 percent of the total California gull population, meaning the species, not all gulls in California. The California gull, which prefers the California coast in winter, roams the entire West. It’s the state bird of Utah, in fact, beloved there since 1848 when it saved settlers’ field crops by feasting on the katydids quickly consuming them.

Some 300 other bird species frequent Mono Lake, including migrants like phalaropes and eared grebes, and people living here knew they depended on lake shrimp and brine flies for survival. The word mono means “fly” in Yokut. The Paiutes who lived near Mono Lake harvested the brine fly grubs, a protein-rich delicacy, and traded them to the Yokuts for acorns.

When spring winds stir the lake’s waters, algae grows to support new populations of both brine flies and brine shrimp. The delicate cycle of life at Mono Lake can easily be observed in spring and summer, anywhere around the lake’s shoreline. By mid-summer it peaks, when some four-trillion brine shrimp reach mature and become the birds’ second major food source. That’s just about the time fledgling gulls—hatched on the lake’s twin black and white islands—take flight and go foraging. It’s not easy catching brine flies in midair, an essential California gull survival skill. If you’re lucky you may witness young birds practicing—dropping sticks in mid-air and then diving to catch them.

Mono’s most notable features are its surrounding salt flats and peculiar tufa formations—strangely beautiful salt-white limestone pillars created naturally underwater when salty lake water combines with calcium-rich fresh spring water bubbling up from below. The best place to see and wander through these fantastic tufa formations is in the South Tufa Area. No climbing or souvenir-taking.

As for the 20th-century war waged on behalf of Mono Lake and its water, shipped south to L.A., it’s hard to get the full story here. The fight has been so contentious, convoluted, and long-running, and has involved so many public agencies and public hearings, so many lawsuits and compromises, that even he simply facts aren’t simple. 

Public outcry over ecological damage to the lake, and successful lawsuits, thanks largely to the Mono Lake Committee and a 1983 decision by the California Supreme Court, finally slowed the siphoning. But to save Mono Lake from LA, lake advocates agreed to more groundwater pumping farther south in the already desiccated Owens Valley, making this a somewhat pyrrhic victory. For a truthy fictional version of the larger water theft story, watch Chinatown.