The big losers at Mono Lake, though, are not people but birds. David Gaines, head of the Mono Lake Committee that spearheads the environmental fight, told me that as many as 50,000 California gulls-95 percent of those in the state and one in five of all in the world—habitually flocked to the lake to nest, 30,000 of them on Negit Island.
The gulls nested safely in 1978. Later that summer the falling water level opened a land bridge to the island, which the National Guard tried to sever with explosives to protect the gulls from coyotes.
Three tons of explosives were used the following spring, but coyotes easily crossed to Negit. In panic the gulls attacked each other’s nests. “There was disaster on Negit,” Mr. Gaines said. “Not a chick survived.”
In 1980 the state erected a high barbedwire-topped fence across the causeway, but the gulls nested on other islets that year.
Though bitter Mono Lake contains no fish, it teems with feathery brine shrimp, food for the hungry gulls. And for millions of other birds too—phalarope, grebe, teal, sandpiper, plover—more than 100 species in all. (See the article beginning on page 520.) An incredible 800,000 feeding birds have been counted there in one day. Many of them are on migratory flights, using shrimp-rich Mono Lake as a filling station between breeding and wintering grounds.
Are those migratory birds endangered too? Yes, said David Gaines and Dean Taylor. Both men posed the same melancholy questions during our conversation:
- How long can birds cope with the increasingly bitter waters of Mono Lake?
Will a day come when increasing salinity makes the shrimp population collapse, turning the lake into sump?
- If the shrimp do go, will the migratory birds go too? The nearest known protein-rich lake is the Salton Sea, 350 miles south.
“At present diversion rates, Mono Lake’s salinity is bound to continue to increase,” David Gaines said. “The results could be disastrous to the entire ecosystem. That’s why we are asking the DWP to share water during years of average and above-average precipitation. Gradually the lake level would rise, reflooding the land bridge and reducing salinity to lower levels. With much of the shoreline dust under water, the air-pollution problem would be eased too.”
Who could argue with those eminently attractive goals? Primarily, the Department—full name: the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Alas, Los Angeles is in the wrong place. It sprawls in the arid south, whereas two-thirds of California’s water supply is in the northern third of the state. Supported by state law and acts of the U. S. Congress, Los Angeles can tap streams in the Mono basin.
Just south of the Mono basin lies a sere reminder of Los Angeles’ thirst. It is the Owens Valley, once dotted with farms and ranches, now the arid property of Los Angeles. In the first quarter of this century a violent water war raged there. Repeatedly, sections of the aqueducts were blown up by desperate local people, trying to keep their valley from going dry. *
The Mono Lake fight, though, has been a civil one, in spite of those paper-napkin bombs. “We can save Mono Lake without anyone in Los Angeles going thirsty,” David Gaines argued. “All it requires is modest water conservation in the city, and the effective recycling of waste water by the DWP.”