Mono Lake Conservation Attempts Continue
MONO LAKE, Calif., Jul. 13, 2007 (KGO) (KGO) -- You may remember the "Save Mono Lake" bumper stickers. The campaign was to preserve the high sierra desert lake too salty to drink, but too ecologically valuable to let dry up. More than half a century after thirsty Southern Californians deprived the lake of water, Mono Lake is on the rebound.
The ancient Mono basin is a wasteland. Dust storms swirl on the horizon, and jagged peaks hover over the incredibly salty water of Mono Lake.
In the 1940's, a rapidly expanding Los Angeles turned to the lake for water, tapping the Sierra runoff from the streams and creeks that fed Mono Lake, which left the lake to slowly evaporate.
Lisa Cutting, of the Mono Lake Committee, a non-profit dedicated to restoring and preserving Mono Lake, explains:
"When they were diverting all the water beginning in the early 40's, they were, most of the time, taking all of the water from the streams. So the streams were dry."
Water diversion caused mineral deposits called tufas. They formed on the lake bottom by bubbling springs of mineral-laden water. Over time, they've been exposed.
In 1962, they barely poked out of the water. By 1968, they were above the water line, Ten years later, they were on land.
In 1994, the California water board limited the amount of water that could be taken from Mono Lake until levels rose to pre-diversion levels.
Cutting: "The last few years were rather significant, and the lake came up significantly."
In fact, Mono Lake reached its highest water level since the 1970's last year. There is still six feet to go. There are also signs the eco-system is beginning to repair itself.
"We have seen this big shift in how the whole system works," says Robert Jellison of the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab, who has studied the lake since 1982.
"To the casual observer, you can see the lake has risen. The tufa groves are smaller. The streams are coming back to life. The exposed playa bed, that you used to see around the lake, is now only on the northeast side of the lake."
The added water is making Mono Lake less salty, which is increasing the population of brine shrimp.
Jellison says "the first generation is larger than what we've seen in the whole twenty-five, thirty year record."
That means more food for the thousands of migratory birds that make a pit stop at Mono Lake.
"We are definitely seeing a reoccurrence of species that occurred here before the diversions, says Sacha Heath. She has been monitoring the bird population at Mono Lake for PRBO Conservation Science. Using historical records, they are carefully documenting changes.
"The story of Mono Lake is really inspiring, in that here we are seeing how important restoration is. Although we are seeing overall declines in bird population, we can also see that a localized restoration effort can increase bird populations as well," says Heath
This includes the willow flycatcher, an endangered species not seen in these parts for generations.
Chris McCreedy of PRBO Conservation Science says, "even still they are coming back really slow. So it's going to take a lot of effort in the next 50 or 60 years to bring the population back to what it used to be."
With the rising water comes diminishing opportunities. The northern part of the lake is a salty, toxic beach, laden with naturally occurring arsenic. It's an almost other-worldly landscape.
Scientists like USGS Geo-Microbiologist Ron Oremland are probing the shores of Mono Lake for evidence to support the idea of life on other planets, such as Mars.
"The possibility that life evolved there and was able to adapt to high salinities - because anything that would be left on the surface or near the surface of mars would be a brine - because all the fresh water would have evaporated," says Oremland.
In the mid 1990's, scientists discovered a previously unknown microorganism.
Oremland says it "was a unique finding. It was unusual that any kind of life could be found to grow on such a toxic element."
But slowly, the lake levels will rise to cover up the Petri dish-like shoreline. It's bittersweet news to scientists, but much better news to advocates and environmentalists, who are finally seeing life return to Mono Lake.
It's been a dry year, so the lake will drop by a foot because of the dry winter. Hydrologists say the lake is on track to rise to the height prescribed by the department of water resources by 2014.
Written and Produced by Ken Miguel.
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