Photo: Tufa towers in Mono Lake, Lee Vining, CA. 2007
“…I was struck with how quickly Mother Nature, given the chance, heals the wounds we inflict upon her….If nature can heal an injured land, it can heal our blighted souls as well. That’s why saving Mono Lake is a matter of saving, and healing, ourselves.” -David Gaines, co-founder, Mono Lake Committee
I grew up in a small town called Bishop, about 56 miles south of the town of Lee Vining and Mono Lake. As a child I remember great controversy surrounding the diversion of the freshwater creeks by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) which fed Mono Lake. Mono Lake is an ancient saline lake that covers 70 plus square miles and supports a very unique and important ecosystem. Best known for its other-worldly limestone tufa towers, the lake is home to millions of migratory birds each year. Mono lake has absolutely zero fish due to its alkalinity, however brine shrimp and alkali flies are the single food source for many of these migrating birds.
The DWP diverted fresh water from 1941 until 1990, causing the lake level to lose half of its volume, to drop 45 vertical feet and double its salinity level. Environmentalists began to bring lawsuits in an attempt to stop the DWP from diverting more water which turned into a decade of contentious litigation. Finally, in 1994, the California State Water Resources Control Board ordered the DWP to allow Mono Lake to rise again to a healthy 20 feet above its historic low. As of November 30, 2010, the lake still has 9.5 more feet to go.
For me, the beauty of Mono Lake has always been in its mystery. I remember driving home from college on many a moonlit night for the holidays. While descending Conway Grade I would literally gasp for breath at the beauty of the tufa towers that rose from the middle of the lake as they sat bathed in light. The lake’s appearance has always been so other-worldly. It’s as if this large body of water with its ancient limestone formations belonged on some planet far away from our own.
When NASA broke news last week of a strange new life form found in Mono Lake I wasn’t all that surprised. It seemed fitting to me that something as monumental as an “alien” organism that substitutes arsenic for one of the six main building blocks that we believed were imperative to create and support life, would be found in this mysterious ancient lake.
The news has brought with it a lot of speculation and has fueled the fire to continue the search for extraterrestrial life. What it has brought to me is an even deeper level of respect for Mother Nature and her ability to not only spring back from the brink of destruction, but to create life outside of the box in a way that human kind never before dreamed possible. The beauty and mysteries that continue to spring from this ancient lake will pique my curiosity for the remainder of my life.