The Water Desk, An initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, supported research and reporting for this story.
LEE VINING, Calif.—When Rose Nelson camped along lower Rush Creek in the summer of 2017, the water was flowing as high and fast as anyone could remember. The rumble and roar of the creek, she said, was the joyful sound of nature healing.
“It was the first high runoff after a long drought,” said Nelson, now the education director for the Mono Lake Committee, a nonprofit based in Lee Vining, California. “I wanted to feel what that was like. One of my secret camp spots is right next to Rush Creek, and when I slept there, just to hear the cobbles moving down, it was like a thunderstorm the whole night. And it made me so happy.”
High flows are a big part of restoring a landscape marred by decades of water diversions from the creek to Los Angeles, she said. The surge of runoff pushed big boulders downstream and created new channels. It rearranged logs and branches to create pools for fish and trap sediments that build new shorelines. Seeds spread by the torrent sprouted later along the revived riverbanks, bringing Rush Creek back to life.
Equally important, the flows raised the level of Mono Lake, a bird haven and the centerpiece of an ambitious restoration project that includes Rush Creek and other streams feeding the lake. In 1994, under court orders, the state finalized a plan to repair the damage to the 780-square mile Mono Basin watershed driven by the human-caused drought.
Without protection, the lake’s ecosystem probably would have collapsed sometime early in the 2000s under the combined pressure of water diversions and global warming. Its persistence suggests that protected ecosystems are more resilient than vulnerable ones, and that helping nature heal itself more effectively prevents their decline than drastic technological and engineering interventions.
Under the restoration plan, the city has cut diversions from the basin by 80 percent, leaving enough water for the streams and lake to start healing. Yellow warblers flit through new riverside forests of cottonwoods and willows, some of which can grow eight feet a year, given enough moisture. There’s a new understory of grass and brush filling spaces between the vanilla-scented Jeffrey pines that survived the man-made drought. Enough water has reached the lake to keep its ecosystem of birds and bugs alive, though still far less than mandated by the restoration plan.
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Other salt lakes around the world have already died. Owens Lake, about 100 miles south of Mono, used to support hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, but it dried up in 1926 after 13 years of water diversions by Los Angeles. The Great Salt Lake, 600 miles northeast of the Mono Basin, has fallen by two-thirds since the 1980s, to a level so low that it threatens not only the health and well-being of its native plants and wildlife, but that of the residents of its namesake city, prompting Utah leaders to propose piping Pacific Ocean water to the lake to staunch its decline. In Eurasia, water diversions dried up the 26,000-square mile Aral Sea, and many other salt lakes around the world are “shrinking at alarming rates, reducing waterbird habitat and economic benefits while threatening human health,” researchers wrote in a 2017 study.
Rather than sweeping policy remedies, quick fixes and one-time pushes for action, Mono Lake’s recovery resulted from decades of sustained efforts, including establishing layers of protection at different levels of government and the ongoing involvement of generations of researchers, activists and lawmakers who have fought to save the Mono Basin and reconnected thousands of stakeholders to an otherworldly environment that is at once easy to neglect and critically important.
Many scientists say scaling up ecosystem restoration is critical in the face of global warming to protect food and water supplies for people, habitats for animals and plants and sinks for greenhouse gases. One recent study, for example, found that restoring habitat for beavers and wolves across the western United States could have significant climate benefits.
Governments are also starting to take note. Europe’s parliament is considering a restoration law that would set measurable targets and establish enforcement mechanisms, and the Biden administration has made vague plans to try to protect 30 percent of the nation’s land and ocean areas by 2030, similar to a non-binding global pact with the same goals.
Mono Lake is a “hopeful example” for others trying to mend Earth’s shredded biosphere, Nelson said. “People come here from all over the world and ask how we did it. This is a place where I feel optimistic about things. Throughout my environmental career, I’ve felt things can get really down. It can seem really dark. But Mono Lake is an example of we-can-do-this work in the environmental field.”
Life-Sustaining Waters Were Once Close to Death
Until Los Angeles started taking the water headed to Mono Lake in 1941, the ecosystem had helped sustain life “since time immemorial,” according to the Mono Lake Kootzaduka’a Tribe. The earliest physical evidence for human occupation of the area dates back to near the end of the last ice age, more than 10,000 years ago.
Tribes living in the area gathered the rice-sized brine fly larvae blanketing the shore and dried them into a rich, portable supply of protein and fat, and used other natural resources in the basin to sustain themselves for millennia. Lava from Mono Basin’s most recent volcanic eruptions provided smooth obsidian for spear points, arrowheads and trade.
The lake was the the cultural and spiritual center for the Indigenous people who were mostly displaced in the 1800s, usually with force, by European colonizers who never considered Native American connections to the water and land as they divided up the territory and allocated streamflows, first to ranchers and gold miners, and later to Los Angeles. Many of the gold-seekers, merchants and farmers who forced out the Native Americans were themselves displaced when L.A. started taking the water.
But a small number of Kootzaduka’a remained in the area, never giving up their connection to the lake, and the Tribe is currently engaged in a cultural and civic restoration process, along with asserting its legal rights via several administrative processes, including formal federal recognition.
But by the time scientists rang the alarm in a 1977 report, most of the area’s Native Americans and the ranchers and miners were long gone. Los Angeles real estate speculators had seen the Mono Basin as a terra nullius, open for the taking, and they had no qualms about drying up 20 miles of stream, which wiped out fish populations, streamside forests and wetland habitats for birds, insects and beavers. Mono Lake’s water fell by half and doubled in salinity, threatening the survival of all the species that depend directly on the lake.
The scientists helped build a grassroots conservation campaign, anchored by the nonprofit Mono Lake Committee, which quickly gained momentum. In 1981, California created a state park natural reserve to protect its shoreline and other areas around the lake. A coalition of conservation groups won temporary legal protection for the lake in 1983. A year later, Congress created a new national scenic area designation to “protect the unique ecological and cultural resources of the Mono Basin.” And a decade after that, a state water board ordered far-reaching restoration for the entire ecosystem, including the lake’s tributary streams.
The protection came in the nick of time, said Geoff McQuilkin, executive director of the Mono Lake Committee. Without protection, Mono Lake probably would have died during California’s 2012-2016 drought.
“If there had been the same diversions as in the ‘80s, and then the drought, Mono Lake would be gone,” he said. “Physically, there would still be some water, but the ecosystem as we know it would be gone. All salinity thresholds would have been passed, probably around 2010. We can worry a little about where we are in the recovery process, but that’s the key thing, that we didn’t pass those thresholds.”
McQuilkin recalls first learning of the lake’s dire condition as a fifth-grader in Los Angeles when a science teacher presented a slide show that advocated for preservation of the lake.
“I remember thinking, ‘What, L.A. is taking all the water? That can’t be right,’” he said.
A Persistent Pleistocene Puddle
From the start, the conservation push was guided by science, led by young researchers funded by a National Science Foundation grant. They showed that the water diversions to Los Angeles were destroying an ecosystem that had existed in a delicate balance with the climate for millennia.
“We really had a great time. We were youngsters with a lot of energy, fire in our bellies and we felt like we were really doing something important,” said David Winkler, who edited the 1977 Mono Basin scientific assessment and is now an evolutionary biologist and ecologist with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
Winkler was drawn to the body of water for its persistence in a geologically and socially improbable landscapes “at the western edge of the Great Basin, the eastern edge of Sierra, in a remote corner of the most whacked-out state in the union, subject to all the varied cultural influences of California,” he said.
Mono Lake is uncommonly deep for its extent, which makes it relatively stable on a geologic time scale. Its size has varied less than the other Great Basin lakes that came and went during ice ages, despite the high, dry rainshadow of eastern California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains being an unlikely spot for a large body of water to persist for 750,000 years. Sediment layers and other clues show that Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America, persisting through extreme climate swings between wet and dry, hot and cold during global ice age cycles.
“It has never gone dry,” Winkler said. “That’s really special. That long stability makes it an anchor.”
Mono’s briny waters spread over about 70 square miles of a desert basin carved by glaciers and surrounded by volcanic slag and pumice sand from recent eruptions. The lake has no outlet, and a handful of mountain streams deliver enough fresh water to offset the millions of gallons of water that evaporate each year.
But once the water diversions started in 1941, it took only a few decades—not even a finger-snap of geologic time—for Mono Lake’s ecosystem to nearly die, and then be born again.
Super El Niño Aids a Quest for Justice
Considering Mono Lake’s demise was almost unbearable for ecologist David Gaines, who was part of the first research team at the lake when he was a UC Davis graduate student and is credited with co-founding the Mono Lake Committee in 1978. He died in a car accident in 1989 along with Mono Lake Committee intern Don Oberlin, before seeing the conservation and restoration agreements finalized.
“The lake needed somebody to speak for it,” Gaines said in an interview in the 1980s. “I think other people find themselves in the same position. They fall in love with a place, or a cause, or something, and nobody is speaking on its behalf. Just a sense of justice motivated me to organize a Mono Lake Committee back in ‘78.”
The lanky, curly-haired scientist often whistled out bird calls as he led new committee interns on orientation treks around the basin. Sometimes the tours ended with campouts and jam sessions in soft pumice sand near the lake, or along the banks of one of the tributary streams.
In the early days, the main mission was to tell the world about the threat to Mono Lake’s ecosystem, and how it could be saved by conservation, cooperation and collaboration. The blue “Save Mono Lake!” bumper stickers became ubiquitous on cars around the West, an analog version of today’s social media hashtags. Campaigners gave tours of the lake and slide shows in schools and to civic groups. For an annual rehydration ceremony, bicyclists scooped water from a reflecting pool at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and carried it up the route of the aqueduct to pour it back into the lake.
But Los Angeles wasn’t giving up a drop of water, at least until the lawyers—and the climate—entered the picture. In 1982 a “Super El-Niño” formed, followed by similar events in 1998 and 2015. Each of them raised the global average temperature to new records, and some research has linked those El Niño spikes with global warming.
The winter storms fueled by the 1982-1983 warming in the equatorial Pacific dropped so much snow that 10-foot berms along some mountain roads lasted through July. Snowmelt in the lake’s feeder streams overflowed dams, spilling water and fish into long-dry stream beds and replenishing Mono Lake.
When the runoff finally waned in late summer, researchers monitored stream flows, fish and birds with increasing urgency as Los Angeles prepared to resume diverting all the water in the tributaries, interrupting flows to the lake once again. Environmental attorneys argued before the California Supreme Court in the case of National Audubon Society v. Superior Court that Los Angeles needed to maintain enough water in the streams to keep fish alive. Mono Lake and its streams, they argued, had public trust values that obligated Los Angeles to keep its ecosystem alive.
In Roman law, the public trust doctrine held that some navigable bodies of water should be protected for the use and benefit of all people. While colonizers of the American West ignored that foundation of European water policy, Indigenous history suggests that the people who lived in the region for more than 10,000 years held a similar philosophy of protecting the waters that sustained them.
In 1983, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the National Audubon Society, California Trout and the Mono Lake Committee.
The Mono Lake cases were “fundamentally about hope,” Richard Roos-Collins, legal counsel to California Trout, said in an interview for a Mono Lake documentary. ”David and Sally Gaines, and the others who brought these cases back in 1979, had the chutzpah to sue the most powerful water utility in the state without any specific legal precedent in support.” The legal complaints used the public trust doctrine and other statutes in ways that had never been tried to limit diversions, he said.
The subsequent conservation and restoration agreements are a “testimony to our ability to undo some of the damage, heal the land, (to) create that space for what is an enormously important part of our children’s future,” said Martha Davis, then the executive director of the Mono Lake Committee.
In the town of Lee Vining, decades of preservation and restoration work at nearby Mono Lake have nurtured the community’s connection with nature—something even science is increasingly promoting as necessary to effectively confront the climate and biodiversity crises. Buildings and fences feature murals with the lake’s tufa towers or gulls, and the local soft-serve joint, the Mono-Cone, is named for the volcanoes just outside town.
“The most meaningful experiences I’ve had with my family and friends have been connected to the lake,” said Ellery McQuilkin, daughter of the Mono Lake Committee’s executive director. “This place has really shaped my world. It’s so incredibly beautiful every day. It’s the place I center myself, where I find myself in the world.”
Her emotional connection to the Mono Basin manifested as scientific interest in her early teens, when she started doing research for school science projects on the lake’s temperature and salinity. “It may be partly because it’s my dad doing all of this work,” she joked in an office jammed with computers, lake level graphs and old geologic maps. “But I think that beside that, Mono Lake has become a big part of who I am.”
One of her earliest school research projects suggested that the pogonip, a persistent cold winter fog in the Basin, slows the heating of the Mono Lake compared to other similar lakes, she said.
In 2019, during her sophomore year of high school, she documented the imminent demise of two glaciers high in the Mono Basin watershed near Yosemite National Park, both important sources of late season stream flows to Mono Lake. Their disappearance will lower its water levels, and her measurements showed the glaciers are dying, she said.
“These glaciers shaped Yosemite,” she said. “They had a huge impact on the world we live in, they shaped the mountains I grew up in. It’s sad this is what it’s come to, that our world is really becoming this place where glaciers might not exist.”
Migratory Stopover Crucial to Whirling Birds Survival
Ryan Carle also grew up around Mono Lake, and the birds he’s now studying depend on its water. About 40 years earlier, his parents, Janet and David Carle, became Mono Lake State Park rangers, serving for decades as guides and guardians to the Basin’s natural and cultural treasures.
Ryan is now a scientific guardian for two species of phalaropes, small shorebirds that visit the lake to feed and molt during their migration to South America from their breeding grounds on the northern tundra, and they are vulnerable to threats that transcend borders, he said. Their habitat in South America is also under pressure from water diversions, often by mining for copper and lithium, key materials for the energy transition, while global warming is thawing their breeding grounds on the tundra. An Audubon climate model projects the birds will lose 100 percent of their range by 2080.
“Salt lakes are in trouble from climate and water diversions and the projections for habitat loss are staggering,” said Carle, a conservation coordinator with Oikonos, an international ecosystem research organization. “When you look at these forecasts, it’s really discouraging. What you can do is preserve habitat so species can adapt, which will be a huge component of addressing climate change.”
In a warming climate, many species will need vast, connected webs of protected habitat, he said. His five-year study at Mono Lake will help show how phalaropes have been affected by the global decline of the salt lakes they depend on.
When the phalaropes arrive, Mono Lake is thick with algae, brine shrimp and brine flies, with more biomass per gallon of water than the oceans. The birds often twirl on the water to create whirlpools that spin up food. Within a few weeks, they can change out their feathers and double their body weight in preparation for their 3,000-mile flight to marshes and ponds in Argentina and Peru.
But warming may disrupt the timing of their migration and feeding.
“Wilson’s phalaropes tend to come in July and August. It’s a crucial migratory stage and they need the food right then,” he said. “Some years, there are fewer brine shrimp, with only one generation rather than two and sometimes the shrimp are tiny. What’s most dangerous for the birds is if there is a big change in the productivity of the lake.”
In a warmer climate, more water coming from rain storms than from slowly melting snow could bring big pulses of freshwater that disrupt the lake’s biological cycle, he said.
There’s strong anecdotal evidence of dropping phalarope numbers at Mono Lake, but also that the ongoing restoration of the lake’s habitat is helping the birds confront the challenges posed to them by the warming. If it had dried up in the early 2000s, climate change wouldn’t matter. There’d be nothing left to save. Protection of the lake’s ecosystem gives some species a fighting chance to adapt, Carle said.
Warming Climate Brings New Challenges
The Mono Lake effort can help show how other ongoing restoration projects can adapt to the new challenges presented by global warming. The planet’s rising heat means there is “no such thing as a pristine ecosystem anymore,” said Winkler. “With climate change, there is no such thing as an ecosystem that doesn’t need our intelligent and vigorous help. We need to use our minds, be guided by our hearts, while caring about everything.”
But global warming was barely on the environmental radar screen when the conservation efforts started at Mono Lake, said Dave Herbst, who studied the lake’s brine flies and salinity in the 1970s and is now a biologist with the Sierra Stream Institute. The projections for snowfall and runoff, temperatures and evaporation that guided the restoration effort were based on records of the previous 100 years—like most 20th-century water planning.
“But those old models were wrong,” he said. “It’s a moving target now.”
Herbst said the early research at Mono appears to coincide with the inflection point shown in the landmark “hockey stick” climate change graphic of 1999 that showed the sharp upturn in global temperatures tracking with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.
“I eyeballed that inflection right at ‘76, the year we started doing research,” he said. Since then, “global warming has brought us to this place of uncertainty. What is a realistic expectation for recovery? All you can do is proceed with the plan that exists, favoring water going to the lake, allowing it to reach some new equilibrium.”
Climate change is also the big unknown for David Martin, a restoration ecologist who has headed the Los Angeles Department of Water Power’s team in the Mono Basin for more than 20 years.
“The models have predicted certain things, but none of them have come true,” Martin said. “The most recent lake modeling I’ve seen shows it’s a long way until we potentially hit 6,391 feet (the restoration target level). Now, we have to ask, if the climate is changing, is 6,391 feasible, or will there be a time when everyone needs to reconsider that paradigm?”
Early modeling projected that, with diversions curtailed, Mono Lake could reach that level as soon as the early 2000s. but it never came close. That’s about the same time the climate started throwing curveballs at us, said Peter Vorster, a hydrologist with The Bay Institute, who has been studying Mono’s stream flows and water levels for more than 40 years.
“The rules that we set aren’t going to get us there,” he said. “The climate has changed such that the lake will not, in the time we’ve set, reach the desired level. We’re going to have to make changes to the rules.”
Some of those changes are in the works. When the lake failed to reach the 2014 target level, it triggered a review of the restoration plan, which was completed in 2021. The overall goal for a sustainable lake level hasn’t changed, but the update sets new even tighter restrictions on diversions, triggered both by high and low stream flows. The goal is to restore the flows closer to what they were before diversions started, he said. It also requires more extensive monitoring of the lake and its tributary streams.
And the state water board is setting the stage for another full hearing that will reconsider how to ensure restoration in an era of increasing climate extremes, based on the latest science. Several recent studies show that California, and other parts of the West, are probably facing a series of climate whiplashes, especially between extreme drought and deluge, with drivers including atmospheric rivers, and potentially stronger or more erratic El Niño-La Niña climate cycles.
McQuilkin said no date has been set, but that recent models for the Mono Basin suggest that entirely curtailing diversions of streams and groundwater is the best and fastest way to get the lake to a safe level.
People Rising to Raise Lake Levels
For the people with the longest and deepest ties to Mono Lake, full recovery requires confronting a legacy of racism and colonialism in addition to strong science and political will.
Mono Lake Kootzaduka’a Tribal Elder Dean Tonenna said it’s long past the time for the tribe to have a strong voice in the future of the lake. Drawing on thousands of years of local Indigenous knowledge, he said an elevation of 6,400 feet would be a water level that could sustain the tribe’s lake-centered cultural and spiritual practices and enable modern tribal life in the basin, as well.
“The tribe is going to ask for a higher lake level,” he said. “We really seized on what has worked for this lake for thousands and thousands of years. About 6,400 feet is what the tribe knows of how the lake can be healthy; how the organisms, the birds can all be healthy.” Only with the lake at that level can legitimate discussions about other uses begin, he added.
Federal recognition of the tribe would likely give it a stronger position in negotiations about the lake and the surrounding land and streams, but a bill introduced in Congress in June of 2021 to recognize the Mono Lake Kootzaduka’a is still in the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States. Still, the tribe has engaged in regulatory processes at other levels, including with the Lahontan regional water quality control board. There, the Kootzaduka’a Tribe plans to establish a right for the beneficial use of the basin’s water. The tribe wants land and water in the Mono Basin to re-establish a tribal area, with homes and economic opportunities, he said.
“Our people returning home will need houses,” Tonenna said. “We want to have renewable energy. We want to have economic development.”
A tribal recognition and land could help revive not only the lake, but other landscapes around it.
The Mono Lake Kootzaduka’a are working with the federal Bureau of Land Management to culturally restore and care for piñon pine groves on 1,000 acres north of the lake.
“It’s a real opportunity to bring back tribal stewardship,” Tonenna said, adding that the U.S. Forest Service has also expressed interest in the tribe helping to manage forests on lands it oversees. Momentum is growing for using tribal perspectives and tools to manage the Mono Basin at a small scale, he added.
“We’re trying to make our presence a little more known,” he said. But that may be “flying in the face of this idea that conservation means you take the people out to preserve your paradise.” Working together with conservation organizations would probably be best, but that would require them to acknowledge the “racist legacy that created the laws and frameworks that we have,” Tonenna said. “By continuing with the same modes of government or management, we keep alive that racist legacy into the present day. It has to start with the acknowledgement that what we think is normal is actually racist.”
While the tribe is attempting to restore the basin by correcting its history of conquest, others are trying to address the threats presented by its future climate.
Janet Carle, the former state park ranger, said Mono Lake’s fate probably depends on whether humans can tame global warming. Her current engagement as a local community organizer for a solar pavilion and other projects, and her advocacy with the Citizens Climate Lobby both were fueled by her career as a Mono Lake ranger, she said.
“It’s so easy to just throw up your hands and say, ‘What can I do? I’m only one person. I guess I might as well have a good time and watch it all unravel and hopefully I’ll be dead before it gets too bad,’” she said. “I just feel like my way to cope is to do what I can in my own little town.”
The lake shows how local action can have global impact.
“People come from all over the world and see this,” she said, “so we can make a difference.”
But given current climate projections, she said this isn’t the time to sit back and say Mono Lake, or any other place, is saved. The work is just starting.
“We want to take care of Mono Lake, and now we’re basically saying to take care of it, we have to do something about this climate issue and address the emissions problem and greenhouse gases,” she said.
“We all need to rise up and do whatever we can with our particular talents. We have to try to inspire other people, try to inspire our kids and let our kids inspire us. And we all have to stand together. That’s the only thing that’s going to work.”