Mono Lake

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At the foot of the eastern slope of the Sierra is an unusual and vital lake with a storied chapter in conservation history. Michael Ellis has this Perspective.

Mono Lake is the oldest lake in the U.S. and awesome is the appropriate word for this immense body of water. On my last visit the sky was so blue, the air crisp and clean; the aspens in the surrounding Sierra golden. It was splendid and all seemed right with the world.

The water is 2 1/2 times as salty as the ocean and 100 times as alkaline. Conditions for life are tough. In spring and summer algae blooms are prodigious and the tiny plants are consumed by both brine shrimp and alkali flies. These small invertebrates in turn feed millions of birds.

Beginning in 1941 the city of Los Angeles tapped into all the streams that feed Mono Lake from the eastern slope of the Sierra. And just like Owens Lake to the south there was danger its ecosystem would collapse or the lake would completely disappear. A 1994 court decision gave Mono Lake a reprieve from LA’s thirst. The courts guaranteed a lake level desired by biologists and LA agreed not to challenge the ruling, allowing the lake to live and support the birds that depend on it’s vital sustenance.

The lake is also one of the great American conservation stories. The Forest Service has a fancy Visitor Center celebrating the lake’s glories but they were reluctant players in the game to save it. The real hero is the Mono Lake Committee founded by David and Sally Gaines in 1979. I had the pleasure of meeting David two years earlier and suggested that it would be a great story for 60 Minutes - the Goliath LA Water district against David, the puny bird watcher. After all everyone had seen the movie Chinatown. He said it was a great idea but what was 60 Minutes?


Although David’s knowledge of that bigger world was then limited, he knew nature. David was a reluctant warrior for the lake. His gentle spirit did not mesh well with conflict but he knew in his heart what was right and that gave him great power. He died in 1988, but his name and memory live on in the hearts and minds of those that love Mono Lake and will always remember David Gaines, its premier champion.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is naturalist living in Santa Rosa who leads trips throughout the world.