Mono Lake is an impressive body of water. I first discovered this great destination almost 20 years ago on a trip with my dad. We had driven to Bishop, California, to see the fall colors and took a break in Lee Vining. While there, we met some folks who were talking about photographing the sunset at Mono Lake, so we decided we would check the place out. And we were sure glad we did! The afterglow during the sunset generated some great colors.
In 1864, John Muir offered this description of the area surrounding this majestic body of water: “A country of wonderful contrasts, hot deserts bordered by snow-laden mountains, cinders and ashes scattered on glacier-polished pavement, frost and fire working in the making of beauty.” His geological assessment was accurate. Mono Lake is surrounded by the Sierra Nevada to the west, ancient volcanic Bodie Hills to the north and Anchorite Hills to the east, desert sands also to the east, and the relatively young volcanic Mono Craters to the south.
The two islands in the middle of the lake were formed by volcanic activity as well: the black island erupted about 1700 years ago while the white island erupted only about 250 years ago.
Having no access to the ocean, Mono Lake has a fluctuating but always high salt concentration. The strange spires and knobs that rise out of and surround the lake shore are the most unique features of Mono Lake. These formations—called tufa (too-fah)—are whitish limestone deposits that are formed when fresh water springs containing calcium bubble up into the carbonite-rich lake water. As water evaporates—or more recently is diverted—the lake’s mineral content fluctuates but often is recorded around 10%. In other words, Mono Lake ranges from two to three times more salty than the ocean.
Mark Twain called the area “the loneliest place on earth” in his book Roughing It (1872). In reality, Mono Lake—although seemingly desolate—is really full of life. No fish can survive in its alkaline waters, but green algae, brine shrimp and alkali flies thrive and in the past helped sustain the tribe called Kutzadaika who lived nearby. The area—which contains 14 different ecological zones—is home to over 1000 plants and 400 animals. The lake itself is home to 80 species of migrating birds, including two nesting species (California Gull and Snowy Plover).
A RECENT VISIT
In March 2015, I visited Mono Lake again—and it is still beautiful. There are several viewing sites where tourists can walk to the lake’s edge. One spot, called the Old Marina, is a few miles north of the Visitor Center.
The most popular viewing site is the South Tufa Area, situated a bit southeast of the Visitor Center. It can be reached via a gravel road from a turn-off about 5 miles south of Mono Lake.
There are two view sites in the South Tufa Area. Of the two locales, South Beach is easier to reach and is patrolled by a patient raven.
I preferred the more remote Navy Beach.
The drive back to U.S. Route 395 offered some wondrous clouds in the late afternoon.
SOME RECENT HISTORY
This wondrous lake and the ecological systems it is a part of have been in existence for over 760,000 years, making it one of the oldest lakes in North America. In 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting water from Mono Lake’s tributary streams to meet the water needs of Los Angeles. Quickly, the lake’s volume was greatly diminished, and the ecosystem was negatively impacted. For example, the higher salinity content undermined the life cycles of the algae, shrimp and flies, thus also impacting the migratory birds who feasted on them. Here’s another example: The lower water levels turned the islands into peninsulas, making the nesting birds and their eggs easy prey for predators who could now reach them.
Before the water diversion started, Mono Lake measured 86 square miles and its water level was 6,417 feet. In the 1970s some major research studies were conducted to document the disruption of Mono Lake and its ecosystem caused by the water diversion. The Mono Lake Committee was formed in 1978, taking legal and media action to try to return water to Mono Lake to save the area’s ecology. The lake’s historic low was recorded in 1982 when it covered only 57 square miles with a water level of 6,372 feet. At that point, 18,500 acres of the pre-diversion lake bed were exposed.
In 1984, Congress named the area the Mono Lake National Forest Scenic Area. By 1994, legal battles conducted by the Mono Lake Committee concluded, reaching a compromise regarding the water level situation. Now, a formula is used to determine when and how much water can be diverted; there is a goal to maintain Mono Lake at 76 square miles with a water level of 6,392 feet. At that level, 6,700 acres of the pre-diversion lake bed would be exposed. A sign in the parking lot at the Visitor Center says the parking lot itself would be underwater if no diversion had ever been started. The area was named the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve in 1994.
Although nothing like its past glory, Mono Lake is still a magnificent body of water. This year—2015—is the fourth year of a major drought. As a result, the water level has dropped below the mandated minimum level used as part of the formula that determines how much water can be diverted from the area. Right now, Mono Lake–at its lowest level in 18 years–only covers 71 square miles with a water level of 6,379 feet. 10,000 acres of the pre-diversion lake bed are exposed.
Mono Lake is still incredible and still supports extensive life. If you drive by the area, I expect you will agree with the description offered by Israel C. Russell, an historian working in the area in 1889: “In the middle distance there rests upon the desert plain what appears to be a wide sheet of burnished metal, so even and brilliant is its surface. It is Lake Mono.”
If you have not visited this area, do so. And if you live in California, do all you can to conserve water. It would be a shame if this wondrous lake did not last another 760,000 years.