The tranquil isolation of Mono Lake in California – just outside the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park at Lee Vining – makes it almost a place of pilgrimage for me. It’s a lake filled with mountain snow run-off from the Sierras, and it has no outlet. The mineral wash from the mountains and the volcanic springs that enter from the lake bed get concentrated through evaporation and as a consequence the water is highly alkaline. Almost nothing can live in it, except algae, a specific kind of brine shrimp and a kind of brine fly almost unique to the lake.
All of these thrive in unthinkable numbers, making the lake the perfect feeding stop for migrating birds. The consequence is this “dead” lake is one of the most important wetlands in North America, providing a “service station” for countless birds each year as they cross the otherwise barren wastes of Nevada. You can see the flies swarming in the video above. They’re quite safe – they have no interest whatever in humans and simply fly away when disturbed.
There was a problem, though. The growth of metropolitan Los Angeles meant there was an ever-increasing need for new sources of water. LA bought the water rights to the area around Lee Vining and started to divert the mountain streams into a giant aqueduct that runs all the way down the back of the Sierras. The water level of Mono Lake started falling, so much so that in 1978 an action committee formed to protect it. The “tufa towers” you can see in the photograph used to be completely submerged – they are mineral deposits from underwater volcanic springs.
The activists were successful in a judicial review of the practice and were able to secure a court ruling that the level of the lake should be restored. That’s a slow process, still in progress and still needing a great deal of activism to keep it on track. I’ve been supporting the Mono Lake Committee ever since my first visit there and still regularly hear from them of assaults on the lake and its water catchment. The pressures can only increase.
But this is vital habitat. If its destruction at the hands of the water prospectors were to resume, it’s possible that bird migration across the USA could be affected. This isn’t a dead lake, nor just a local landscape that might be expendable because of its isolation. It’s a vital in-route service area for millions of birds. It would be a crime to let it be destroyed.