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New Day for Mono Lake

March 28, 1998

Out at Mono Lake, that splendid patch of high-desert blue, this is a quiet month. Soon the silence will be shattered by the cries of the seabirds and migratory birds that will come, drawn by the trillions of brine shrimp that now thrive in the lake. Phalaropes, about 100,000 a year, 2.5 million grebes and the California gulls, about 80% of the state's population, will nest on the rocks and mineral spires known as tufas to breed before heading back to the coast with their young.

The nearby canyons and mountains on the Sierra's eastern slope are also home to coyotes, mountain lions and bighorn sheep. Last week a bald eagle, a rare sight, was spotted swooping and circling over the hills nearby. The water level is rising and bird populations are up.

These are good times for Mono Lake. On Sunday the folks who had a big hand in reversing the damage others had caused there will pause to take stock. The Mono Lake Committee is beginning a yearlong celebration, not only to give itself a well-deserved pat on the back for 20 years of hard and successful efforts to revive the lake but also to spread the word about what's happened out at this oasis in desolate Mono County east of Yosemite National Park.

Mono Lake's comeback is not just the story of one environmental "save." It's a story as well about the growing recognition over the past two decades that we humans have caused great damage to our natural world and that we can sometimes reverse it.

More than 50 years ago, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began to divert the freshwater streams that feed Mono Lake, sending that water south to fill bathtubs and sprinkle lawns here. Those diversions caused the lake level to fall more than 40 feet and, without adequate fresh water from the local snowpack, the salinity rose, endangering the wildlife that depended on the lake. By 1982, the lake's surface elevation hit a record low of 6,372 feet above sea level, down from 6,417 feet before the DWP diversions began. As the water receded, the characteristic tufa islands that rose from the water--those strange and delicate formations that look like dripped sand--became peninsulas, leaving bird nests vulnerable to predators.

The Mono Lake Committee, a determined band of folks from both near the lake and Los Angeles, formed in 1978 to reverse this decline. Years of legislative hearings, lawsuits and arm-twisting finally prompted the state Water Resources Control Board in 1994 to order the DWP to halt its diversions and help restore the lake.

As a result, the lake level has risen about 10 feet. With snowpacks this year at 134% of normal, better days are surely ahead for Mono Lake. And, as many predicted, the water board order has forced the DWP to do more of what it should have done all along--emphasize water reclamation and conservation as well as diversion.

Sunday afternoon, the committee will premiere a documentary film chronicling its two decades of work, "The Battle for Mono Lake," at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall. This is one battle in which there have been only winners.

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