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The Troubled Waters of Mono Lake

Gordon Young

(National Geographic Senior Staff)
Photographs by Craig Aurness

From a roadside overlook, my first view of distant Mono Lake was 61 square miles of cobalt blue mirror. White puffs of cumulus clouds crept along it surface, framed by inverted peaks of California’s Sierra Nevada.

Absolutely gorgeous. Yet a century ago Mark Twain, in Roughing It, had written: “This solemn, silent, sailless sea – this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth – is little graced with the picturesque.”

The lake is ten miles from the Nevada line and just east of popular Yosemite National Park, so countless skiers and summer tourists can testify that Mark Twain was wrong about its picturesqueness. And though it may be silent, its advocates are not. Mono Lake, for several years now, has been the focus of a war of words and writs. On one side, environmentalists; on the other, a power often known simply as the “Department.”

As I drove closer, the lake’s beauty took on the look of fantasy. Misshapen giants stood in groups in its green shallows and on the pastel beach – sight-seeing trolls fixed by an enchantment.

They were columns of tufa, a porous form of calcium carbonate. Each was born under the surface of the lake, as fresh spring-water brought up calcium to interact with Mono’s chemicals, coalescing into the towers. Some of them are home to rock wrens, swallows, and great horned owls.

Mono basin, formed some three million years ago at the western edge of the Sierra, has held a lake for perhaps a million years. The lake has no outlet other than evaporation and has not overflowed its basin in tens of thousands of years. Over time, minerals have concentrated in the lake, until today its water is two and a half times as salty as the ocean. Ironically the undrinkable lake is dwindling further to feed the faucets of Los Angeles, 275 miles to the south.

Five streams used to enter it. Four are diverted into aqueducts now; the fifth is too small to be worth diverting.

“In recent years the lake level has dropped about 18 inches annually” botanist and researcher Dean Taylor explained. He had come to give me a tour along the lake’s perimeter in his venerable microbus. “Not only is a scenic asset shrinking, but an expanding rim of alkaline shoreline is exposed. Winds kick it up into very unpleasant dust storms in the Mono basin.”

Concerned about those dust storms, Dr. Taylor is pursuing a research project to determine what effect, if any, the alkali has on area vegetation.

Residents in the lakeside village of Lee Vining, too, are unhappy at the sight of the shrinking lake. “Their favourite intellectual exercise,” Dr. Taylor remarked, “seems to be the designing of bombs that could blow up the tunnels and aqueducts.”

Ghostly islands of tufa in California’s Mono Lake stand as bleak monuments to a bitter dispute over the lake’s future. Built by upwelling springs, the deposits of calcium carbonate testify to a 44-foot drop in the water level since 1941, when Los Angeles began tapping all but one of the lake’s five main tributaries.
Slaking the thirst of a distant city, Mono Lake’s receding waters leave a ring of powdery alkali flats as much as a mile wide (above). Born with the Sierra Nevada that surrounds it and fed by springs and runoff from snow and glaciers, the lake has no natural outlet. Evaporation and diversions of its freshwater inflow make it two and a half times as salty as the ocean. At its former level, seen in a hand-tinted 1925 photograph (below left), water surrounded Negit Island at top center. In 1979 exposed lake bottom connected the island to the shore (below right), spurring a drive to cut Los Angeles’ diversions by 85 percent.

It is not a furtive activity. In a Lee Vining café a teenage resident enthusiastically sketched his infernal device. He drew a chain of minisubs, each packed with dynamite, to be detonated by remote control as they floated through a diversion tunnel.

Well, fear not, officials of the Department in Los Angeles. The exploding subs have surfaced only on a paper napkin. Lee Vining’s weapons exist only in fertile imaginations. Or, so I have been told.

Nesting Gulls Meet Disaster

The big losers at Mono Lake, though, are not people but birds. David Gaines, head of the Mono Lake Committee that spearheads the environmental fight, told me that as many as 50,000 California gulls – 95 percent of those in the state and one in five of all in the world – habitually flocked to the lake to nest, 30,000 of them on Negit Island.

The gulls nested safely in 1978. Later that summer the falling water level opened a land bridge to the island, which the National Guard tried to sever with explosives to protect the gulls from coyotes.

Three tones of explosives were used the following spring, but coyotes easily crossed to Negit. In panic the gulls attacked each other’s nests. “There was disaster on Negit,” Mr. Gaines said. “Not a chick survived.”

In 1980 the state erected a high barbed-wire-topped fence across the causeway, but the gulls nested on other islets that year.

Though bitter Mono Lake contains no fish, it teems with feathery brine shrimp, food for the hungry gulls. And for millions of other birds too – phalarope, grebe, teal, sandpiper, plove – more than 100 species in all. (See the article on page 520.) An incredible 800,000 feeding birds have been counted there in one day. Many of them are on migratory flights, using shrimp-rich Mono Lake as a filling station between breeding and wintering grounds.

Diminishing lake could diminish life, affecting both a nesting place and food supply of the California gull (top). Conservationists say that its primary food, brine shrimp (bottom right), would be reduced if the lake gets too salt, but the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power counters that there is no evidence to support such a claim. The fact, however, that the harvesting of brine shrimp for fish food (bottom left) has become more difficult and expensive suggests that the upwelling springs where the shrimp congregate are diminishing.

Are those migratory birds endangered too? Yes, said David Gaines and Dean Taylor. Both men posed the same melancholy questions during our conversation:

  • How long can birds cope with the increasingly bitter waters of Mono Lake?
  • Will a day come when increasing salinity makes the shrimp population collapse, turning the lake into a sterile sump?
  • If the shrimp do go, will the migratory birds go too? The nearest known protein-rich lake is the Salton Sea, 350 miles south.

“At present diversion rates, Mono Lake’s salinity is bound to continue to increase,” David Gaines said. “The results could be disastrous to the entire ecosystem. That’s why we are asking the DWP to share water during years of average and above-average precipitation. Gradually the lake level would rise, reflooding the land bridge and reducing salinity to lower levels. With much of the shoreline dust under water, the air-pollution problem would be erased too.”

Who could argue with those eminently attractive goals? Primarily, the Department – full name: the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Alas, Los Angeles is in the wrong place. It sprawls in the arid south, whereas two-thirds of California’s water supply is in the northern third of the state. Supported by state law and acts of the U.S. Congress, Los Angeles can tap streams in the Mono basin.

Just south of the Mono basin lies a sere reminder of Los Angele’s thirst. It is the Owens Valley, once dotted with farms and ranches, now the arid property of Los Angeles. In the first quarter of this century a violent water war raged there. Repeatedly, sections of the aqueducts were blown up by desperate local people, trying to keep their valley from going dry.*

The Mono Lake fight, though, has been a civil one, in spite of those paper-napkin bombs. “We can save Mono Lake without anyone in Los Angeles going thirsty,” David Gaines argued. “All it requires is modest water conservation in the city, and the effective recycling of waste water by the DWP.

Lake Changes Before Resident’s Eyes

According to local residents, some species of birds have already begun to leave. I chatted with building contractor Jeff Hansen in the living room of his lakefront home. “The lake was thick with ducks and geese 25 years ago,” he told me. “It’s hard to find even one out there now.” Unlike ocean shorebirds, ducks and geese are ill equipped to stomach the increasingly salty diet.

Mr. Hansen’s front yard lengthens each year as the lake recedes. He pointed out a landlocked tufa tower 30 feet from the water’s edge. “As a boy I used to swim out to that tower. Its top was a few feet below the surface, and I’d rest there from the long swim before heading back.”

I stared at him quizzically. “You used to swim in Mono Lake?” I thought of Mark Twain’s account of a dog with “raw places” that had unsuspectingly jumped into the water, only to thrash ashore yelping. “He finally struck out over the mountains, at a gait which we estimated at about two hundred and fifty miles an hour, and he is going yet.”

Mr. Hansen grinned. “Sure we swam in Mono Lake. And boated on it, and water-skied on it.”He pointed along the shore to the site of an old marina, now thoroughly landlocked. “People still do. But it’s hard work, getting to the water through the salty muck along the shore. As long as you follow your swim with a freshwater shower, though, you feel great.”

Some of the present-day boaters on Mono Lake are scientists. Zoologist David Winkler of the University of California at Berkley is one of them. He focuses on the California gulls that continue to feed and nest there on smaller islands still isolated in the shrinking lake. His bird counts show their number has decreased.

An ingenious fellow is David Winkler. During his frequent visits to the lake, he sets up housekeeping in a hollow plaster volcano built 30 years ago, during the production of a Hollywood epic, Fair Wind to Java.

While he trains his binoculars over Mono Lake, other University of California researchers look beneath its surface. Limnologist John Melack and his crew, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, study the aquatic ecology.

The lake they probe is ever changing. In winter, the shrimp are dormant but algae are plentiful. Spring comes; shrimp hatch, and begin feeding on the algae – while newly arrived birds dine on shrimp.

In summer, the lake stratifies. Its warm upper regions are thick with shrimp, while the algae supply decreases. Below, in the cool depths, the situation is reversed.

Fall brings cool days that weaken the lake’s stratification. Once again, algae are plentiful, while the shrimp go dormant.

The flurry of scientific interest in Mono Lake is recent – extensive research began only in 1976. “Few of our biological studies have a good baseline,” Dr. Melack complained. “We can tell the condition of the lake now, but without something to judge against, it’s hard to tell how fast the eco-system is changing.”

Only scattered small tracts of private property remain near the lake’s perimeter. Largest landowner is the federal government, represented by the Bureau of Land Management and the Inyo National Forest.

Next comes the city of Los Angeles – for back in the 1930s the city acted to ensure its future water supply by buying up land around the lake.

There is a strong difference of opinion regarding the state government’s decision given Los Angeles the right to tap streams in the Mono Basin. The National and Los Angeles Audubon Societies, Friends of the Earth, the Mono Lake Committee, and four individuals have filed suit against the DWP, claiming that the diversions damage a unique asset held in public trust by the state. The DWP, in turn, has cross-claimed against 153 interested parties, including the state and federal governments, seeking a judicial determination that its diversion of water from the Mono basin is lawful.

In another suit, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have demanded that the federal government assert its rights to protect the lake’s ecosystem. Neither suit has yet been decided.

Los Angeles Stakes Strong Claim

A great deal is at stake, for 17 percent of Los Angeles’ water comes from Mono basin. High-quality water, it needs little processing, and it flows through tunnels and aqueducts that have largely been paid for.

Paid for by the water itself and by electric power it generates. Gravity pulls it to the distant city – and along the way, it races through hydroelectric turbines that produce 2 percent of the city’s power.

To get the city’s side, I visited the Los Angeles DWP headquarters. That building rises from a pond spanned by a pedestrian causeway. In the mind’s eye one might see the pond as a moat, and the causeway as a drawbridge to be raised at the first sign of approaching environmentalist armies.

Duane L. Georgeson, engineer in charge of the aqueduct division, is a pleasant and rational man, convinced of the rightness of his cause. One by one he responded to the environmentalists’ claims.

He was not convinced that gulls will disappear from the lake’s nesting grounds. He was not convinced that increased salinity would destroy the brine shrimp. The lake will stabilise, he assured me, at about half its present size – a third of what it was in the 1930s. Surface evaporation will then be offset by underground springs.

“We’d like to see a five-year study of the lake’s ecology,” Mr. Georgeson said. “It would tell us a lot more about the situation.”

The overriding argument, though, was not environment. To Duane Georgeson, it came down to a matter of simple justice.

“Back in 1967”, he said, “the California Department of Water Resources reported that one of the benefits of increased diversion from the Mono basin would be a reduction of the amount of water wasted by letting it flow into saline Mono Lake. Well, if California has decided that public values have changed – that water flowing into Mono Lake isn’t a waste – why should Los Angeles be penalized?

He leaned forward. “Los Angeles build and paid for the whole aqueduct system. Not a nickel of federal money went directly into its actual construction. Is it fair to take the system away and ask us to find our water somewhere else?”

The he moved on to the energy question. “Each acre-foot [325,000 gallons] of water that flows through the diversion generates electricity equivalent to five barrels of oil. If we lost the system, it would cost five barrels of oil per acre-foot to pump replacement water over the mountains. That is a pretty poor trade-off these days. I believe the security of an affordable, high-quality water supply to the people of Los Angeles should be as important as the fact that a picturesque saline lake in the high desert is declining.”

Massive surgery failed to correct a balance of nature thrown awry by the lake’s sinking level. The land bridge to Negit Island remains (above) despite two attempts to sever it with explosives. Coyotes and gulls crossing paths (below left) brought disaster to the 1979 nesting season. The next year a chain link fence was built to thwart the coyotes, but proved of no use since the birds chose other nesting grounds. With the lake too salty to support fish, the birds have no natural rivals to compete for brine shrimp and brine flies. More than 100 bird species frequent the lake, one of the major inland breeding grounds for California gulls and an important resting and feeding station along western flyways.

More controversy may be afoot when in 1985 the Central Arizona Project begins taking 660,000 acre-feet of Colorado river water now going to southern California. When Phoenix and Tucson turn on their taps, farms and towns in California will have to find replacement water. While Los Angeles now uses only a small portion of Colorado water, it owns the rights to considerably more being used elsewhere. In Georgeson’s view, shutting off Mono Lake water would vastly intensify the water-rights game.

But were the three million Angelenos solidly arrayed behind their Department? I wandered around the town the next day, taking a public opinion poll.

Conclusion: If my unscientific sampling of 11 people holds true in the rest of the city, then environmentalists and the Department are talking only to each other. No one else seems to be listening.

Only two people in my survey were even aware that Mono basin was part of the city’s water supply – and one believed the lake itself was the source of drinking water. “We need that water,” he said firmly. “People are more important than a few birds.”

Clearly, problems that tower in the minds of naturalists and aqueduct engineers may hold little relevance on crowded city streets.

In a suburb of Sacramento I talked with William L. Kahrl, editor of an impressive volume, The California Water Atlas, and perhaps California’s most objective expert on Mono Lake.

“Remember”, he said, “you have two environmental viewpoints matched against each other. Preservationists are trying to save a lake and the birds. But the Department considers itself conservationist – fighting to keep a water system that generates rather than expends electrical energy.”

Then he switched to economics. “Have you heard of the ‘theory of the long purse’? It means that, to develop water rights anywhere, you also need money to fight the legal battles involved. You need a long purse – and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power certainly has one. It’s a powerful adversary.”

Friends of the lake conduct their own diversions (above), symbolically stocking Mono with water brought from local streams and back from Los Angeles, including a bottle filled at the water department’s reflecting pool. The Mono Lake Committee claims that 15 percent conservation by Los Angeles in good rainfall years would stabilize the lake at an acceptable level. Committee chairman David Gaines (below) extols Mono’s mineral-rich water as invigorating, though its alkali stings cuts in the skin.

As we talked, one house of the California Legislature was considering a bill calling for a drastic reduction in the diversions. The bill resulted from a plan proposed by a local, state, and federal task force formed to deal with the problem. Many lawmakers did vote in favor of the plan, but it failed to pass. Even so, Mono Lake boosters could view the defeat as a partial victory – at least it demonstrated that support for their cause was growing.

An ill wind blows from the basin, carrying a caustic cloud of sulfates toward the mountains (above). Visibility can drop to less than 40 feet, and dust may have reached as high as 20,000 feet. Air quality on the east shore often falls below state and federal minimum standards. As part of his research Dr. Dean Taylor, a botanist, vacuums dust from the shore (below left), then sprays it on piñon pines to study the long-term effects (below right). Results are not yet known. Since diversions began, Mono’s surface has shrunk from 86 to 61 square miles, exposing 16,000 acres of lake bottom, reviving the old nickname, California’s Dead Sea. A bill to curtail the diversions failed to gain approval of the State Assembly last year and never reached the State Senate.

Academic interest in the lake continues. In addition to studies sponsored by the DWP, six different research teams from various universities are now at work there. Though each focuses on a separate link in the environmental chain – brine shrimp, algae, water salinity, shorebirds, nesting birds, alkali dust – their combined efforts are bringing a clearer picture of Mono Lake’s biosphere.

In the spring of 1980 only about 40,000 California gulls returned to Mono Lake. By a July 1981 count, conducted by David Winkler and the DWP, the number of chicks had dropped to less than half the 1980 hatch. This drastic decline puzzles scientists.

The gull’s nesting choice will be even harder in future. “Winter was dry here in the Sierra,” David Gaines of the Mono Lake Committee told me recently. “If the Lake drops at its usual rate this year, the islets where 40 percent of the remaining gulls nest will be connected to the mainland.”

While courts struggle to balance a city’s rights against those of nature, Mono Lake’s plight worsens. The problem comes down to this: Americans view water as a public asset that must be put to the highest and best use. Is that use for the city of Los Angeles or for the preservation of Mono Lake.

Unearthly sculpture gardens of fragile, windswept tufa on the shore would be protected under a proposed Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve.

* Judith and Neil Morgan described the plight of this valley in the January 1976 GEOGRAPHIC.