The Rescue of Mono Lake

August 19, 2008

Mono Lake

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.


Dump the Pump

June 19, 2008

old gas pumpToday is “Dump the Pump” day, advertised throughout the nation as the day we should all try to take mass transit to work. I heard about it on the radio while I was filling my tank at the gas station, how ironic. The fillup cost me $65 and will last less than a week. I do not own a big car. It gets around 27 city, 32 highway.

But I live a good distance from my job, and that job demands non-regular hours. It will never be 9-5 so I drive alone, daily, like 85% of all other commuters in Western New York.

Aside from downsizing to an even smaller vehicle my wife and I have taken great pains to reduce our carbon footprint – something Dick Cheney might call a personal virtue but what we consider to be absolutely essentially for sustained future growth. Since 1997 we successfully cut our natural gas consumption by 60% and this past winter saved about $1,000 in the process. Our largest gas bill was $110. I have not taken the time to track our electricity consumption but I am quite sure that it too is significantly less than what it was just a few years ago.

It has not crimped our lifestyle.

Conservation is, however, all about habits, about changing the little things: Turning off the lights when you leave a room, sleeping with an extra blanket, caulking the windows, wearing sweaters, and being especially conscious of how you are using and wasting energy.

Four-dollar-a-gallon gas may have one saving grace: It may force all of us to make energy conservation a personal virtue.