In 1982 I traveled to Mono Lake, near Yosemite National Park in California, to witness the tragedy of a national treasure being sucked dry by the demand for water elsewhere. For 40 years the rivers that fed the lake – Lee Vining, Rush, Walker and others – had been diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and evaporation was rapidly dropping the lake levels so low that what was previously a vastly rich ecosystem was now about to collapse to dust.
Mono Lake is a basin surrounded by mountains. It has no outlet. Fresh water streams fill the basin and as the water evaporates it leaves behind a brackish lake that is home to an amazing variety of brine shrimp and other aquatic animals, insects and tufa towers! Birds loved the shrimp and alkali flies. For millenia the lake was a waypoint to thousands of migratory fowl. In its middle was an island which provided an immensely dense breeding ground, protected by water from predators.
Then the lake levels dropped; a land bridge appeared – and that allowed coyotes and other carnivores to help themselves to a high-protein egg feast. [Aside: There is an interesting story somewhere about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers trying to blow up the land bridge to save the breeding ground; it was an extraordinary failure.] By 1982 the lake level had dropped almost 40 feet from its historic levels. I shot over a hundred photographs of what I thought was the death rattle of (what some say is) the oldest lake in North America.
But the obituary was a bit premature. Around the same time an organized push was made to save the lake. Through its efforts and the efforts of others the Mono Lake Committee successfully petitioned the California State Water Resources Control Board (CSWRCB) to reduce the flow diversions to a point where lake levels are now slowly climbing. The land bridge is again under water.
Today Mono Lake is 10 feet higher than when I visited, but still 34 feet below its historic level, and has about 8 more to go to reach the targets set by the CSWRCB. Even so, it is a step in the right direction and an inspiration to those who long to find that balance between societal demands and natural resources. I was (un)lucky enough to capture photographs of what will hopefully be, in another generation, submerged land.