Mono Lake Committee nature tour.
Mark Twain visited Mono Lake in the 1860s, and deemed it “a solemn, silent, sail-less sea…[a] lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth.” He described the salty water as made “nearly of pure lye” and said “there are only two seasons in the region round about Mono Lake—and these are, the breaking up of one Winter and the beginning of the next.” In short, Twain hardly made Mono Lake seem like a desirable vacation destination. Nevertheless approximately 260,000 people explore the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve each year.
More than 150 years after Twain wrote those words, I decided to visit Mono Lake for the first time. Although I drive past the lake almost weekly, and have enjoyed views of it from the Mobile Mart in Lee Vining, I’ve never taken the time to walk along its shores, see the tufa towers up close, or ask the question, Why is Mono Lake such a big deal?
I decided the best way to get to know the famous lake would be to take a guided nature tour provided three times a day from the South Tufa parking lot. I chose the 6 p.m. tour, figuring it would be best to beat the heat. Robbie Di Paolo from the Mono Lake Committee was our guide, and I was surprised to find more than 20 people joining the tour on a Monday night. The U.S. Forest Service and the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve lead other tours at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily.
Di Paolo is a recent graduate from Humboldt State, with a degree in Environmental Science. “I heard about Mono Lake in a policy class but I had never been here,” he said. This is DiPaolo’s first summer in the Eastern Sierra as a paid Mono Lake Committee Intern, and he gives the South Tufa tour about once a week.
The hour-long tour covered topics ranging from water rights and policy issues, to the formation of tufas and the impressive number of birds that use Mono Lake as a nesting ground. Di Paolo kept the conversation flowing, pausing for interactive activities for the kids and leaving space to answer questions.
“Mono Lake is an alkaline lake, 2.5 times saltier than the ocean,” Di Paulo explained. He also said that Mono is a terminal lake, meaning several freshwater tributary streams add water to the lake, but “the only way that water leaves is through evaporation.”
This created problems when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) began diverting water from these streams 350 miles down to Los Angeles in 1941, virtually cutting off all freshwater contribution to Mono Lake.
In 1976, a group of UC Davis researchers “determined that as the salinity increased it had very negative affects [on the ecosystem]. Their conclusions were that if diversions continued it could mean total collapse of this ecosystem,” Di Paolo said. However, LADWP “was such a powerful entity, making so much money-—and they had water rights,” he said. “In California, if you have water rights, that’s law. You can’t take that away.”
In 1978, David Gaines and several other scientist formed the Mono Lake Committee as a grass-roots organization that began fighting the LADWP in order to restore Mono Lake. “The idea that this small non-profit could ever do anything was almost laughable,” Di Paolo said.
In 1982, Mono Lake hit an all-time low of 6,372 feet above sea level, dropping 45 vertically feet from the pre-diversion level of 6,417 feet. “Essentially it doubled the salinity and halved the volume,” Di Paolo said.
In 1983, the California Supreme Court ruled it was the State’s responsibility to maintain navigable water lines for the public under the public trust doctrine. “In the words of one judge, ‘it would be a shame if the state didn’t do anything just because they thought they couldn’t,” Di Paolo said. Soon after, Mono Lake became a designated scenic area and the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve was developed.
“10 years later, in 1993, we started the process of getting water back into the lake,” Di Paolo said. Ever since then, Mono Lake Committee has been working with LADWP on stream restoration and public education. “It’s important to know that LA is not the bad guy anymore, it is actually a model for conservation. Their population has almost doubled since the diversions began and their consumption has really leveled off,” Di Paolo said.
He pointed out a small plaque along the walkway, marking the hopeful management level of 6,392 feet. Once the lake reaches this level, which Di Paolo estimated could happen anywhere from 7-30 years from now, the policies will change. “Once we reach this management level, should it ever drop below that, LADWP will not be able to take any water. So there’s a mutual incentive to get the lake as high as possible,” he said.
Continuing along the marked path, Di Paolo led the group to the first tufa, “an impressive structure of calcium carbonate.” A tufa forms when underground freshwater springs bubble up, meeting the salt water. “It’s difficult to imagine how two liquids can make a solid,” Di Paolo said. “But the freshwater with calcium is less dense than the carbonate salt water, so it lifts up, kinda like you would float if you went out there.”
After asking for volunteers, DiPaolo gave a science beaker to one of the kids to hold while he mixed freshwater from his water bottle and alkaline water from the lake. Instantly the water turned white and sediments began settling on the bottom. “We’re just going to need you to hold it for 100 years or so to see what happens,” Di Paolo told the volunteer.
Tufas can only form underneath the surface of the water and can “grow as little as a couple millimeters in a year, or an inch in a couple days,” he said. He also said that the currently exposed tufas could “begin forming again if they are covered in the salt water of the lake and the [freshwater] spring is still active.”
Di Paolo also discussed animal life at Mono Lake, dispelling rumors that it is California’s Dead Sea. “The dead sea has too much salt, that’s why it’s dead,” he said. There are several bird species that use Mono Lake as a nesting and feeding ground, including 50,000 California Gulls, 120,000 Wilson’s and Red-Necked Phalaropes and 1.5 to 2 million eared Grebes. “They are coming here to eat what we call fly soup—millions, maybe even billions of alkali flies,” Di Paolo said.
The Wilson’s Phalarope, a bird that could fit in the palm of your hand, doubles in weight while feeding at Mono Lake. Birds then fly 5,000 miles south to the Altiplano in South America. They make the trek in 48 hours, traveling 60 miles per hour, Di Paolo said.
There are also 10 mating couples of Osprey nesting at Mono Lake, although they travel to the tributary streams to eat fish. “This is another indicator that the tributary streams are coming back in their ecological health to have fish,” he said.
Mono Lake itself is too salty for fish to survive, but there are over 7 trillion brine shrimp in the water: “That’s 1,000 for every person in the world,” Di Paolo said. The shrimp feed on algae that grow in the Lake, as do the alkali flies. The Native American tribe that populated the area around Mono Lake, known as the Kuzedika or Monoachi (where Mono Lake got its name), once gathered the pupa where it grew in the water, dried it, then either ate or traded it. Each small pupa has about 13 calories, Di Paolo said, making it “ very nutritious food source.”
One group member asked how old the lake was; DiPaolo said it is at least 760,000 years old, but could be anywhere from 1-3 million years old.
Di Paolo wrapped up the walk by explaining more about the Mono Lake Committee itself. He called the Committee a true grassroots organization, with 16,000 members, that focuses on protection, restoration, education, and science in the Mono Basin.
He also explained how the Mono Lake Committee works with several different agencies, including the LADWP, California State Water Resources Control Board, and Caltrans to restore streams, monitor groundwater, and conduct rockfall projects. This group also carries out scientific research and proposes policies for the restoration and management of Mono Lake.
After the tour was over, several people, myself included, continued to explore the shores of Mono Lake, taking pictures of the magnificent tufas and sprawling landscape. Di Paolo answered a few more questions before leaving, but he also encouraged everyone to visit the Mono Lake Committee Information Center and Bookstore in Lee Vining for more information.
In addition to the daily South Tufa tours, the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor’s Center provides an overview of Kuzedika tribal life, the formation of tufas, and the unique ecology of Mono Lake, with interactive displays and a small theater showing films about Mono Lake and Yosemite. The Center is open 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Thursday – Monday.