By Nora Matell
This student is a 2002 graduate of Eastern Sierra Academy in
Bridgeport, Mono County. Her paper, reprinted here, is this year’s State
History Day competition winner of the CCHS award for best entry on a
California subject. In addition Nora won the California Historical Society’s
Heilbron award and the California Council for the Promotion of State and
Local History award. She will be attending Williams College in Williamstown,
Massachusetts, this fall.
It was June of 1976 and a revolution was about to begin. In an aspen grove near a small creek, a dozen college undergraduates
set up camp for the summer. Nearby lay a large and little-known alkaline
lake, the subject of their scientific research. Mono Lake had been visited
by such people as John Muir and Ansel Adams, who both documented its unique
beauty. But many people were inclined to agree with Mark Twain, who had
called it the “Dead Sea of California” and insisted that the Eastern Sierra
where it lay was a “lifeless, treeless, hideous desert” (Twain, 258, 259).
Mono Lake was, as one student put it, “not even on the map” (Herbst).
For three and a half months, the students conducted original
research on lake ecology, geology and hydrology; and on the birds, plants
and insects that lived on and near the lake. Assisted by just a few graduate
student friends and with professors an infrequent phone call away, the
students were completely in charge of what they wanted to study and how (Herbst).
No one had ever done this research before.
The camp atmosphere was stimulating—somebody was always
discovering something new on the lake (Herbst). After breakfast, most of the
students would head out to the lake or shore to do whatever research they
were working on for the day. Several spent most of their time at the Sierra
Nevada Aquatics Research Lab, 30 miles south, studying insects, shrimp and
algae (Dana). Out on the lake, students brought up water samples to look at
brine shrimp or algae, collected plants and aquatic insects, studied the
geology of the basin, and conducted counts of California gulls, grebes and
other birds. Being on the lake or hiking around it was “hot and bright and
salty” (Winkler, Interview), but it was also “glorious” (Herbst).
In the evenings, they would compare data and discuss
findings, changing their own research in response to new discoveries by
others. Essentially, the students were creating new methods and research
questions as they went along, adapting their study as they learned more
about the lake. They felt like explorers on the edge of a frontier (Herbst;
Winkler, Interview). Dave Herbst remembers spending a night among the tall
sagebrush on the far side of the lake. “It was like being in a lost world.
There was nothing out there, nobody out there, just this wild place with big
open sandy beaches and tufa towers and springs ….” At other times, of
course, the students hung around camp in the evenings just like any other
young people: talking, playing cards, playing guitar (Winkler). David
Gaines, a graduate student friend and “John Muir-like guy,” (Herbst) often
spoke of the importance of conservation (Herbst; Winkler, Interview).
In the fall of 1975, Jefferson Burch had contacted his friend
David Winkler about a grant offered by the National Science Foundation for
undergraduate research. Interested in the birds, plants and ecosystem of
Mono Lake, they and several friends applied for the grant. When they
received it in the spring, they assembled a student team, putting up posters
and talking to friends at UC Davis and Stanford. Their objective was to
identify the consequences of lowered lake levels caused by water diversion
to Los Angeles (Winkler, Interview).
Around the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles, approaching the limit of
its own water supply, had begun tapping water from the Eastern Sierra to the
north. An aqueduct, constructed over six years beginning in 1907, sent water
250 miles downhill from the Owens River near Mt. Whitney to Los Angeles.
Employing 3,900 men and breaking numerous world records for tunnel drilling,
the aqueduct was finished in 1913 (Story). By 1926, Owens Lake, an alkaline
lake fed by the Owens River, would be dry; the brine shrimp and birds which
once lived there would be gone (Reheis).
From nearly the beginning, the city of Los Angeles had had
its eye on additional water, located just north of the Owens Valley in the
Mono Basin. As early as 1912, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
began buying water rights and land in the basin (Hart, 37). In 1940, the Hot
Creek Agreement allowed Los Angeles to bypass several fishery laws which
required a minimal level of stream flow below dams (Hart, 45). By 1941,
after the construction of an aqueduct tunnel through the Mono Craters, water
began leaving the creeks of the Mono Basin for Los Angeles (Story). In 1970,
with the construction of an additional aqueduct pipe, the amount of water
sent south from the Mono Basin nearly doubled (Hart, 57). By the summer of
1976, the lake level had fallen 39 feet to 6,378 feet (Yearly).
In the fall of 1976 the student researchers went back to
college, continuing their formal studies and writing up their summer
research. In June of 1977 the compilation of their research, An Ecological
Study of Mono Lake, California, was published. Backed up by a summer’s worth
of scientific research, the students were able to knowledgeably comment on
the health of the lake. Their prognosis was grim: the lake was drying up,
dropping in level and becoming more saline. At increased salinities, the
algae, shrimp and flies which live in the lake—and the birds which feed upon
them—wouldn’t be able to survive (Winkler, Ecological).
The study established that at 1976 diversion levels, the lake
would eventually drop to 6,323 feet before stabilizing. At such low levels,
the lake would lose 45 percent of its 1976 volume. Alkali dust, exposed by
the falling lake levels, would cause health problems in the basin and
downwind in Nevada. In addition, the two main islands, Negit and Paoha,
would be connected to the shore. Outside of the Great Salt Lake, Mono Lake
was—and still is—the largest California gull nesting ground in the world.
The students had counted close to 40,000 California gulls on the lake in
1976, as well as hundreds of thousands of other birds. Most of these gulls
nested on Negit Island and the islets surrounding it. If the islands were
connected to the mainland, predators such as coyotes would devastate the
nesting gulls (Winkler, Ecological).
Because of its high salinity, Mono Lake has never supported fish. But the
tiny brine shrimp which live in the lake and the brine flies which live near
its shores have adapted to the lake—or at least, the lake as it once was.
Salinity tolerance studies conducted by students Dave Herbst and Gayle Dana
found that both the flies and shrimp did best at salinity levels lower than
those of 1976, and worse at higher levels. With rapidly increasing
salinities, the shrimp and flies would not survive (Winkler, Ecological;
Without shrimp and flies to
eat, migratory birds would not flock to Mono Lake. Although the California
gull is the only bird which nests in large numbers, hundreds of thousands of
other birds such as grebes, phalaropes and plovers use Mono Lake as a rest
stop on their migration paths. Wilson’s Phalaropes use the lake to fatten up
before flying nonstop to South America (Birds). For all the migratory birds,
Mono Lake is a crucial feeding stop. If the shrimp and flies died off, the
birds could not use the lake—and there aren’t many other places for them to
go (Winkler, Ecological).
By the fall
of 1977, a land bridge connected Negit Island to the shore. After walking
across it, David Winkler went to see David Gaines on the coast of northern
California, where Gaines and his then girlfriend, Sally Judy (they would
eventually marry) were working. There they unofficially formed the Mono Lake
Committee, dedicated to reducing diversions so that Mono Lake could survive
(Winkler, Interview). Within a few months, they would incorporate, first
under the financial wing of the Santa Monica Bay Chapter of the Audubon
Society, and then on their own (Hart, 72).
In the months to follow, they printed their first newsletter.
David Winkler spent time in Sacramento and San Francisco, lobbying the
California Department of Fish and Game and the Legislature to do something
about the land bridge so the coyotes would stay off the islands (Winkler,
Interview). David Gaines and Sally Judy traveled the state, giving
presentations about Mono Lake. They spent the summer camped at the lake,
giving tours to visitors, taking them to see the tufa towers (calcium
carbonate structures formed by the upwelling of freshwater springs, and
exposed by the falling lake), nearby volcanic craters, and to swim in the
lake. “It was just little by little, we’d get people, like maybe ten people
at a time would learn about it, and they’d tell ten people, and more people
came to visit, and that was the beginning” (Sally Gaines).
In the fall of 1978, David Winkler began studying for his
Ph.D. in ornithology (Winkler, Interview; Department). He left the committee
in the hands of David Gaines and Sally Judy, but he wasn’t abandoning the
lake. In the years to follow, David Winkler, Dave Herbst, and Gayle Dana
would extend their undergraduate summer research into graduate study and
beyond. Others, such as hydrologist Peter Vorster, geomorphologist Scott
Stine and biologists at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory would also spend
time on the lake (Hart, 87). As scientists, they too would help the lake,
compiling greater and greater amounts of evidence supporting the necessity
of higher lake levels. As David Winkler explained about why he left the
committee, “When I took this year off after my undergrad, I flirted with the
idea that hey, maybe I’ll save the world. But I found out that I’m really
not very well suited to that” (Interview). Dave Herbst also told me that he
had never wanted to be an advocate—being a scientist “was more interesting
to me… and more needed…than any other role I could play.”
Advocacy was left to David Gaines. He and Sally Judy
continued the committee, a constant force among the many staff who came and
left, drifting off to other interests or better paying jobs. They continued
working to publicize the lake, in California and especially in Los Angeles.
Publicizing was all they believed they could do—publicize, and watch the
lake slowly drain and die (Sally Gaines).
But in 1978 the State of California gathered an Interagency
Task Force to form a plan for the lake. By December 1979 the task force
would recommend that diversion be reduced to a maximum of 15,000 acre feet
(the amount of water which would flood one acre of level land one foot deep)
per year, down from 100,000 AF/year, in order to gradually stabilize the
lake at 6,388 feet (California, 1).
1979 the National Audubon Society designated Mono Lake as a high priority
site (Hart, 81). Soon after, backed by a new interpretation of an old
doctrine called the Public Trust, the Mono Lake Committee, the National
Audubon Society and Friends of the Earth sued Los Angeles (Political).
According to the Public Trust, waterways have certain protected uses:
usually fishing, navigation and commerce. But an earlier California Supreme
Court case had ruled that the Public Trust also included wildlife habitat,
nature research, and beauty (Hart, 64). And so, the plaintiffs argued,
excessive water diversions from the Mono Basin violated Mono Lake’s Public
Throughout, interest in Mono
Lake continued to spread. Committee membership climbed to 2,000 in 1980 and
4,000 in 1982 (History). In 1978, Audubon Magazine published an article
about Mono Lake (Rowell). By 1983, articles would also appear in National
Geographic and Smithsonian (Chasan, Young).
In 1980 the Committee opened a visitor center in Lee Vining (Sally Gaines).
Maybe they had once been just college kids, passionate enough—and crazy
enough—to begin a revolution that could not be won. But it was gradually
beginning to look like maybe, just maybe, it could be won.
David Gaines was optimistic about the future of the lake, but he would never
see it rise. In 1988 he was killed in a car accident south of Lee Vining
In September 1994,
after 15 years and 5 lawsuits, the California State Water Resources Board
ruled to limit diversions so that Mono Lake could establish equilibrium at
6,392 feet (Political).
Lake is at 6,383 feet (Yearly). The Mono Lake Committee has a full-time
staff of 14 (Degenhart). Sally Gaines is on the advisory board but spends
most of her time as a substitute teacher in nearby Mammoth Lakes (Sally
Gaines). Gayle Dana, after doing her “life’s work” on the Mono Lake brine
shrimp, is studying Antarctic glaciers (Dana). Dave Herbst is still the
world’s expert on alkali flies (Herbst). David Winkler is the director of
Graduate Studies in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at
Cornell University (Winkler, Department).
The annual gull counts continue—I participated in one last
summer. Mono Lake is no longer an unknown place—last year more than 250,000
people visited—many from Los Angeles (Education). And through conservation
measures, the people of Los Angeles still have water to drink.
The revolution has succeeded and the reforms won are saving a
lake—and sending a message that sometimes the impossible is possible.