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Mono Lake

February 09, 1986|Robert Smaus

From a distance that oval of dark blue at the base of the Eastern Sierra looks much like what Mark Twain dubbed it--"the Dead Sea of California." So why would anyone put a "Save Mono Lake" sticker on a car? You have only to detour to the water's edge to discover that Mono Lake is not dead but decidedly alive and vital. A good place to get acquainted is at the new reserve on the south shore that protects the odd minarets made from mineral deposits called tufa.

The road to the reserve is noiseless, just tires rolling over a cushion of this soft stuff, an eerie prelude. The tufa towers seem bizarre at first. But wander among them and the bizarre becomes the beautiful as you grow aware of the quiet and the big sky overhead. Only at the very edge of the water is this calm interrupted.

There the tufa is crowded with flies, swarms so thick that they cover the rocks with a blanket of black. Uninterested in you or your picnic lunch, these are brine flies that live and breed in the salty water of Mono Lake. They were considered a delicacy by early residents, who took their tribal name from the creatures--Mono apparently meaning fly people .

Today, birds harvest the flies and the equally tiny brine shrimp that inhabit the lake, unusually plentiful because there are no fish. In contrast, a bird could starve at Lake Tahoe because the fish leave so little.

Where you stand watching this activity was once lake bottom. The original shoreline was about a mile away and 50 feet higher before the snowmelt was diverted to Los Angeles to water lawns and wash cars. This is the source of the controversy. As the level dropped, it exposed a land bridge that coyotes and others use to cross to an island where the California gull raises its young. Also, without fresh water this salt lake may become too salty for even the flies or shrimp. With them will go the birds and other signs of life and then Mono Lake will truly be a dead sea, as deserted as the amber-colored ghost town of Bodie, just a few miles away.

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