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Up The Road: Mono Lake

Joe Parks, Flickr

Today we head up the road to Mono Lake, an ecological marvel on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.

Nothing at Mono Lake looks all that impressive, at first, especially if you’ve been smitten by the eastern Sierra Nevada’s granite peaks, crystal-blue lakes, and craggy evergreens. 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 surrounding day-old stubble of sage. The drama of life in the Sierra’s rain shadow is nothing short of astonishing, but to appreciate 750,000-year-old Mono Lake you need some knowledge. Stop by the visitor center for a good start.

Early settlers considered the lake “dead,” but native peoples knew better. They observed the huge seagull populations nesting here in spring—85 percent of the total California gull population—and some 300 other bird species, including migrants like phalaropes and eared grebes, and 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.)

Credit Robert Shea; Flickr

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 maturity and become the birds’ second major food source, about the time fledgling gulls—hatched on the lake’s twin black and white islands—and other birds take flight and go foraging.

The lake’s saline waters make for fun, unusually buoyant swimming. Old-timers claim a good soak in medicinal Mono Lake medicinal waters will cure just about anything. (One of the best beaches is Navy Beach along the south shore; avoid salt in the eyes or open wounds.) But 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—no climbing or souvenir-taking allowed—is in the South Tufa Area.

As for the 20th-century war of politics and power waged on behalf of Mono Lake and its water, it will be hard to get the full story even 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 the simple facts are virtually impossible to separate from the details. And to save Mono Lake, its advocates agreed to more groundwater pumping farther south in the desiccated Owens Valley, making this a somewhat pyrrhic victory.

Credit Joe Parks; Flickr

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is central to the saga. As LA’s water czar William Mulholland said in 1907, “If we don’t get the water, we won’t need it.” To get the water—necessary to fulfill his vision of a lush southstate paradise, only incidentally profitable to real estate interests secretly connected to the plan—Mulholland and his DWP built an aqueduct, “Mulholland’s ditch,” to carry eastern Sierra Nevada water south from the Owens Valley. The ditch was flowing by November 1913. But LA’s thirst was unquenchable, and in 1930 voters there approved another bond issue to extend Mulholland’s ditch north—and, later, a second aqueduct—into the Mono Lake Basin. The lake started shrinking, and the remarkable ecology of Mono Lake suffered. Public outcry and successful lawsuits, thanks largely to the Mono Lake Committee and a 1983 decision by the California Supreme Court, finally slowed the siphoning of the region’s water. Some say life “returned” to the Mono Lake Basin in 1985, when bald eagles came back to the area’s stream canyons.

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.