In the Eastern Sierra Nevada, the story of Mono Lake reflects the historical and political struggles between nature conservation and California’s burgeoning urban populations. Thankfully, this is one story with a happy ending, as ongoing restoration of Mono Lake has resulted in the recovery of not just the natural landscape, but also the region’s wildlife, especially its wealth of migratory and resident birds.
Mono Lake straddles the transition zone between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the arid expanse of the Great Basin, east of Yosemite’s high country over Tioga Pass. Like Utah’s Great Salt Lake, Mono Lake is the remnant of an ancient saline inland sea. Ringed around its shores are both ancient and more recent volcanic craters, including the plug-dome volcano of Panum Crater.
In 1914, the rapidly growing city of Los Angeles started diverting water from Mono Lake’s freshwater tributary streams. As a result, the lake shrank and became even saltier. Its surface level dropped, revealing more of the lake’s otherworldly tufa formations, those calcium-carbonate knobs and spires formed where freshwater springs interact with the lake’s salty waters.
By the 1960s, Mono Lake’s water level had dropped by over 25 feet and the ecosystem was on the brink of collapse. Political and legal action by the Mono Lake Committee and other conservation-minded groups got results. The government decided to reallocate the region’s water supply and work for the restoration and future protection of Mono Lake.
Today, the lake continues to recover, thanks to the combined efforts of public servants and concerned citizens. Learn more about it on a field outing, at a workshop or during a volunteer work day with the Mono Lake Committee; visit them online at www.monolake.org.