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Mono Lake FAQ
Frequently Asked Questions About Mono Lake
- Q: Are there fish in Mono Lake?
- And why don't they put fish in it?
A: Mono Lake is too alkaline for fish to survive in it (there are fish that exist that might be able to tolerate the salinity, however). The California Department of Fish & Game once tried to stock it with fish, but they went belly-up. There are reliable accounts of fish at the mouths of the creeks briefly darting from the freshwater into the salt water to catch brine shrimp. But isn't it nice to have a unique ecosystem where the birds don't have to compete with fish for food? There are plenty of other lakes where you can find fish. In fact, there are no native fishes in the entire Mono Basin---any fish you catch are non-native and have been introduced, beginning in the 1850s. There are fossils that have been found of fishes that lived here long ago.
- Q: How salty is Mono Lake?
- A: Mono Lake contains about 280 million tons of dissolved salts. The concentration of salts in the water depends directly on how much water is in the lake. Before water diversions began in 1941, salinity was about 50 grams per liter (g/l). At the lowest lake level in 1982, it was 99 g/l. Currently it is about 78 g/l. Once it rises to its stabilization level in the next 20 years, salinity will average 69 g/l. For comparison, the ocean is about 31.5 g/l, or 3.5% dissolved solids by weight. The Great Salt Lake varies, but since the West Desert Pumping Project removed about 12% of the total salts in the 1980s, the southern arm is about 8.5% dissolved solids and the northern arm is 25-26%. Click here for more Mono Lake statistics.
- Q: How long does it take Wilson's Phalaropes to fly 3,000 miles nonstop to South America?
- A: Three days. Click here for more on the birds.
- Q: How do they know the ages of all the volcanoes?
- A: There are several ways to tell. Near the June Lake Junction a glacial moraine sits on top of a volcano, which tells us that the volcano is older than the glaciation that created the moraine. Panum Crater and a few of the other Mono Craters have no lake terraces on their flanks, which tells us that they are younger than Mono Lake's high levels 13,000 years ago. Black Point has these terraces and tufa at its top, which tells us it is as old or older. The most common way to tell is by finding ash from the eruptions in a sedimentary record (that can be dated), and identifying where the ash came from by its chemistry.Click here for more on the volcanoes.
- Q: How long does it take tufa to grow?
- A: Most of the towers at the South Tufa Area are between 200 and 900 years old. But tufa can grow up to an inch a year, and we know this because of the Navy. In the 1960s the Navy left a bunch of junk at Navy Beach, and as the lake receded in the early 1980s, some of that junk was exposed. A metal drum was found on the bottom of the lake with several inches of tufa growing on top of it. Click here for more on tufa.
- Q: Can tufa be found anywhere else?
- A: Tufa can be found in many other places. Pyramid Lake, Winnemucca (dry) Lake, and Walker Lake in Nevada all have tufa. Death Valley, Panamint Valley, and Searles Dry Lake all contained ice-age lakes and have tufa. In fact, the Trona Pinnacles at Searles Dry Lake near Ridgecrest are huge mounds the size of small hills that are hard to imagine forming underwater during the Pleistocene. Click here for more on tufa.
- Q: How long do brine shrimp live?
- A: Mono Lake brine shrimp have two to three generations every year, and they live for up to six months. They all die off by the end of the year as the water cools. Cysts hatch the following April and the cycle repeats. Click here for more on Mono Lake brine shrimp.
- Q: Where are the flies in the winter?
- A: When it is cold, all the stages of the alkali fly life cycle slow down. This means that in warm spots you may see the flies year-round, however throughout most of the lake they are inconspicuous during the winter. Click here for more on the alkali flies.
- Q: Does the lake freeze?
- A: Mono Lake doesn't freeze because it doesn't get cold enough to freeze the salty water. It does get cold enough for fresh water to freeze, however, and at times you can see a thin film of ice floating on top of the lake along the west shore. This ice layer rarely gets thicker than a quarter of an inch, and breaks up easily in the wind. It forms when freshwater from springs and streams floats on top of the lake water and freezes. In 1983, the west shore of the lake froze thick enough to ski on almost all the way out to Paoha Island.
PEOPLE AND MONO LAKE
- Q: How do you pronounce "Mono?"
- A: "Mow-no," which is the name of the fly-eaters (see next question). "Mah-no" is a disease or means "one".
- Q: How did the Kutzadika'a collect enough fly pupae to eat?
- A: The Mono Lake Paiute (Kutzadika'a) collected alkali fly pupae for food (this is also how Mono Lake got its name). If it doesn't look like there is enough pupae to support 200 people now, keep in mind that before the diversions there were more flies. This was due not only to lower salinity, but more habitat available. All the tufa towers that are now exposed are lost habitat for the alkali fly. Click here for more on the Kutzadika'a people.
- Q: How does Los Angeles get the water out of the lake? Isn't Mono Lake salty?
- A: LA does not get water out of Mono Lake---because the lake is salty. Desalination would be extremely expensive and use a tremendous amount of energy. LA diverts the freshwater streams that feed the lake---some of the purest water you can find anywhere. Because this reduces the inflow to Mono Lake, less evaporation is replaced, and Mono Lake shrinks. Assuming evaporation is constant, the surface area of Mono Lake is directly related to the inflow to the lake (the water not taken from the Mono Basin).
- Q: Where is LA getting water from now?
- A: LA still is getting 16,000 acre-feet of water from the Mono Basin every year, and after Mono Lake reaches 6,392' feet LA will be allowed to take an estimated 32,000 acre-feet per year. This loss of 50,000--80,000 acre-feet per year is being more than replaced by water conservation and water reclamation. You can help conserve water too! Click here for more details.
- Q: Why is it going to take so long for Mono Lake to rise?
- A: Mono Lake is a very large lake---the largest natural lake entirely within California. It lost half of its volume over 40 years because of diversions, and it has over 300,000 acre-feet of space to fill and nine vertical feet to rise before reaching the 6,392-foot stabilization level. In dry years it won't rise but it will fall, while in normal years it might rise less than a foot. In wet years it could rise over a foot. With average precipitation, this means 10--20 years.
- Q: What movies have been filmed at Mono Lake?
- A: The two most famous are Fair Wind to Java and High Plains Drifter. The first was shot in the 1950s on the Negit Islets, and scaffolding remains can still be seen. The second was shot on the south shore and nothing remains of the set.
- Q: Boats aren't allowed on the lake, right?
- A: Since people rarely see boats on the lake, it is common to think they are not allowed. Despite the fact that usually the only boats seen are canoes and kayaks, there are no restrictions on the types of boats one can take on the lake. The only restrictions on private boats are that you must stay one mile away from the islands from April 1 to August 1, and you must stay 250 yards away from Osprey nests while they are occupied (usually April 1 to September). Commercial boat tours require a permit.
Mono Lake's conditions are not suitable for speedboats or jet skis, since the water is very salty and alkaline and there are many submerged obstacles. All boats should use extreme caution, since dangerous winds can arise without warning. Stay close to shore and be off the lake by noon. Do not approach resting or feeding birds. Keep your distance from sensitive wildlife areas such as the creek deltas. Click here for more information about boat tours.
- Q: Is Mono Lake protected?
- A: Mono Lake enjoys a greater measure of protection today than at any time since water diversions began. In 1994, the California State Water Resources Control Board issued its decision on Mono Lake. The State Water Board's Decision 1631 (D.1631) set minimum flows for the streams, set limits on water exports designed to allow the lake level to rise and stabilize at an elevation of 6,392 feet above sea level, and ordered the LA Department of Water & Power (DWP) to restore stream and waterfowl habitat. While D.1631 provides enormous protection, it does not provide the protection of law. It is a decision by a politically-appointed body that could be modified in the future. Mono Lake will always depend on continuing public support for its protection
- Q: Is there reason to be concerned about Mono Lake's future?
- A: Because of the tremendous outpouring of public support that led to the protection of Mono Lake, it is not likely that the State Water Board would soon reopen D.1631---but they have the power to do so. DWP has on several occasions expressed the hope of reopening the decision to increase LA's water supply from the Mono Basin. Perhaps most alarming, there has been an attempt in several locations, most notably Idaho, to undercut the public trust protections won by the Mono Lake Committee in the 1983 California Supreme Court decision.
- Q: What is the Mono Lake Committee doing to keep protections in place?
- A: First, the Committee will never cease its efforts to keep the public aware of and interested in Mono Lake. Public support for protection of the lake's unique resources---people who will speak out on behalf of the lake's rich ecosystem and on behalf of the opportunities Mono Lake offers for the experience of solitude and discovery---will always be important for Mono Lake.
Second, to continue Mono Lake's protection into the future, the Committee is taking steps to see that water conservation, water recycling, and groundwater protection projects are made top priorities in Southern California and statewide. In the past, the Committee worked with Los Angeles to garner federal, state, and local funding to secure replacement water supplies. These replacement supplies will more than replace the water DWP no longer diverts due to D.1631. The Committee will continue working to see that similar federal, state and local funding partnerships encourage conservation and develop replacement water sources to meet increasing demands. Ultimately, Mono Lake will only remain protected if California can meet the growing water needs of its citizens in decades to come.
Third, the Committee plays an important facilitative role with the many local entities in the Mono Basin: with the DWP, which has been charged with the responsibility to restore Mono Basin streams and waterfowl habitat; with the California Department of Fish & Game, which has jurisdiction over the Mono Basin's fish and wildlife; with the California Department of Parks & Recreation, which manages the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve; with the State Lands Commission, which owns the lakebed; with the US Forest Service, which manages the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area; with other environmental and citizens groups, whose efforts and expertise are critical to protecting Mono Lake and its tributary streams; and with the Mono County communities, whose residents and businesses enjoy the fantastic resources of the Mono Basin and play such a vital role in ensuring the long-term protection of Mono Lake.
Finally, the Committee is a partner with constituencies outside the Mono Basin. Inner city youth from Los Angeles participate in the Committee's Outdoor Experiences program and are becoming Mono Lake's future advocates. Partnerships with Los Angeles community groups ensure broad political support for water conservation and the lake's protection in Los Angeles. And and the Committee works statewide and internationally on lake protection efforts ensuring Mono Lake widespread recognition for its remarkable qualities.
- Q: What precedents were set during the fight to protect Mono Lake?
- A: Over twenty years of citizen advocacy underlie Mono Lake's current protection. Before the State Water Board decision protecting the lake could be achieved, important legal concepts were debated and decided upon.
One of these debates related to restrictions that prohibit dam owners from drying up downstream fisheries. Written into the state's Fish & Game codes, these provisions were not enforced until lawsuits were brought in the 1980s. Small flows of water were returned to Mono Lake's tributaries as a result.
But a much more fundamental legal issue was decided by the California Supreme Court in 1983. Lawsuits brought by the Mono Lake Committee, the National Audubon Society, and Friends of the Earth proposed that excessive water diversions damaged Mono Lake, violating the public's right to enjoy the lake and its tributaries. These "Public Trust" rights to navigable bodies of water are written into California's constitution, yet they had largely gone unenforced in water rights issues.
The Supreme Court's landmark ruling on the case changed all that. In allocating water rights---and even after they have been allocated---the court wrote,
"the human and environmental uses of Mono Lake deserve to be taken into account."
"The principal values plaintiffs seek to protect," the court noted, ". . . are recreational and ecological--the scenic views of the lake and its shore, the purity of the air, and the use of the lake for nesting and feeding by birds. It is clear that protection of these values is among the purposes of the public trust." Much of Mono Lake's protection stems from the Supreme Court's decision, and now the Public Trust is being used to protect the natural values of lakes and waterways throughout California. Click here for a political chronology of the Mono Lake water issue.
- Q: Why is ecological restoration needed at Mono Lake?
- A: In 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) began diverting four of Mono Lake's five tributary streams for urban water use. By 1982, Mono Lake had dropped 45 vertical feet, doubled in salinity, and lost a number of freshwater habitats, such as delta marshes and brackish lagoons that formerly provided lake-fringing habitat for millions of waterbirds. The tributary streams dried up and lost stabilizing streamside vegetation. Periodic floods in high runoff years degraded the stream channels and caused downcutting, which lowered the water table. In turn, the lush cottonwood forests in the streams' floodplains died. The Mono Basin lost a premier fishery on Rush Creek as well as over 90 percent of its former ducks and geese.
- Q: Who ordered the current restoration?
- A: In its 1994 decision on Mono Lake, the State Water Board modified DWP's water diversion licenses to ensure protection for Mono Lake and its streams. The 1994 decision also called for DWP to restore stream and waterfowl habitat to help rectify the damage that had occurred in the Mono Basin.
- Q: What does "restoration" mean?
- A: Scientists who developed the Mono Basin restoration plans relied upon the dictionary definition of restore: "To bring back into existence or use; to bring back to an original state." The goal set forth in Mono Basin restoration plans is to reestablish the habitat conditions and ecological processes that benefited fish and waterfowl before DWP began its diversions. The emphasis is on restoring natural processes to the degree possible.
- Q: Doesn't nature restore itself?
- A: Over time, nature will recover from disturbance, but it may not "restore" itself, that is, return to its previous state. For an ecological system (such as a lake or stream) to return to its previous functioning condition depends in part on the kind and degree of disturbance and also on the degree to which the system's former natural processes are reinstated. In the case of Mono Lake, the lake will never rise to its former level, nor will its streams ever carry their full natural flows. Nonetheless, through reinstating natural processes and a limited "helping hand," such as channel reopenings, many of the resources lost to excessive water diversions may return.
- Q: What do the Mono Basin restoration plans call for?
- A: In response to D.1631, DWP prepared plans for both stream and waterfowl habitat restoration to undo the damage of 50 years of diversions. Revised plans were finally approved by the State Water Board in late 1998, following public debate and comment.
Stream restoration plan: Stream restoration relies primarily on maintaining flows that mimic the pattern of former natural flows. Most important are peak flows in the spring runoff period. Certain side channels are being opened in the streams' floodplains. A key feature of the plan is its emphasis on annual monitoring by independent stream scientists. Monitoring results are used to track progress towards specific restoration "endpoints" and recommend additional measures, such as planting trees or placing large stumps in pools to create habitat complexity. Tying restoration actions to monitoring is termed "adaptive management" and allows scientists to suggest new actions in response to real field conditions.
Waterfowl habitat restoration plan: The State Water Board agreed with the scientists that raising the level of Mono Lake is the most important action to restore waterfowl habitat. Other restoration measures include rewatering certain side channels in Rush Creek, developing DeChambeau and County ponds, and implementing a burn program to maintain open water areas at springs around the shores of Mono Lake. While there is annual monitoring of habitat and waterfowl numbers, the waterfowl plan lacks specific restoration "endpoints"---criteria against which to measure restoration progress.
- Q: How long will restoration take?
- A: Wet years in the late 1990s gave a huge boost to the lake, which rose an average of 2.2 feet per year. It dropped from 1999 to 2004, and rose back to its 1999 highstand in 2005 and 2006. With average climate, Mono Lake is projected to take as long as 20 years to rise to its management level of 6392 feet. The streams will take even longer to recuperate. While riparian vegetation is springing back along the formerly dry channels, the cottonwood seedlings along the stream banks will take 50 years to mature. Only then will we see again the multi-storied cottonwood-willow forest that formerly lined Mono's streams.
- Q: Will Mono Lake and its tributary streams ultimately be fully restored?
- A: Much of what characterized former Mono Lake and its streams will recover---but not all. Mono Lake's future management level will be roughly 25 feet below its pre-diversion level. A number of shoreline features---in particular, large brackish lagoons---will not exist at the lower level. Because of this loss, the restoration plans call for various measures as mitigation. As for the streams, the years of desiccation coupled with periodic uncontrolled floods have resulted in changes that effectively defy restoration.
- Q: What is the status of restoration today?
- A: There is much to celebrate at Mono Lake. The lake has risen dramatically. Willows are bursting forth along the creeks. Jeffrey pines planted in the early years of restoration now reach over people's heads. In 1997, stream restoration scientists began mapping stream sections to develop a baseline for monitoring recovery. They are continuing this monitoring each year. With the State Water Board order in place, a number of restoration activities, including channel openings and road closures, have been completed. These activities are likely to be completed in the next few years. Life is springing back in the Mono Basin. We are all privileged to witness the beginnings of this remarkable transformation.
- Q: Why does the Mono Lake Committee lead education programs?
- A: Mono Lake has the protection it has today in part because of the grassroots educational efforts on its behalf. We work to broaden understanding and appreciation of Mono Lake and the value of water resources statewide. The health and conservation of our finite watersheds depend on human understanding and appreciation.
Mono Lake's future depends on public recognition and support. Besides Lee Vining, the Committee also works actively in Los Angeles to help young people realize that the water in their tap comes from natural places like Mono Lake, and that conservation and water recycling can preserve the health of Mono Lake and their city's water.
- Q: What types of education programs does the Committee conduct?
- A: The Committee leads a variety of educational programs at Mono Lake and in Los Angeles that range from one hour to several days in length, and from introductory information to detailed science in content. All the programs strive to connect people with Mono Lake, water, and the environment.
Walking tours at South Tufa provide an introduction to the area. Morning canoe tours introduce the lake from a unique perspective. Weekend Field Seminars take on specific topics in greater depth, such as bird migrations, botany, and Native American basketweaving. Click here for a current schedule.
Ongoing throughout the summer, the Committee's Outdoor Experiences program brings groups of young people from Los Angeles to Mono Lake for a multi-day program including canoeing, hiking, camping, and work projects.
And throughout the year, the Committee works with teachers to make Mono Lake a part of classsroom education. In Los Angeles, Committee staff provide in-class programs and help prepare groups participating in the Outdoor Experiences program. At Mono Lake, Committee staff work with teachers to create special environmental education programs for visiting classes.
- Q: What is the Outdoor Experiences program?
- A: The Outdoor Experiences (OE) program combines environmental education with muscle-powered outdoor activities. The goal of the program is to bring young people to the source of their water, and to build understanding and appreciation for their watershed. Participants learn about Mono Lake, its human and natural history, and the connection that they hold with magnificent waters beyond their faucet. Most importantly, participants learn that Mono Lake is their lake, and that its future rests in their hands.
- Q: Are all the Outdoor Experiences groups from Los Angeles?
- A: No, there are groups from other areas, but the OE program works with young people primarily from the Los Angeles area. These are the youth connected to Mono Lake through hundreds of miles of aqueduct. The program has worked cooperatively with LA community groups, such as Mothers of East Los Angeles, Santa Isabel, and the Korean Youth & Community Center. Community groups such as these have worked actively to implement water conservation programs in the city of Los Angeles.
- Q: What makes a Committee program different from one led by government agencies?
- A: The US Forest Service and Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve offer excellent guided walks and programs at Mono Lake. Because the Mono Lake Committee is a grassroots group with a history of advocacy, our programs emphasize the power of individuals to make a difference in the world, and the responsibility we all have to help protect natural places like Mono Lake. Committee tours offer visitors the chance to continue their involvement with Mono Lake by joining the organization to help safeguard the region and find solutions, which meet Southern California's real water needs.
We don't know!
What do the shrimp do at night?
Where did the brine shrimp come from?
How do the alkali flies eat algae underwater without breaking their bubbles?
How long does it take water to get from the Mono Basin to LA?
How long does a gull live?
Why are tufa towers slanted?
Where did the gulls nest before Negit Island erupted?
Couldn't Mono Lake have dried up once briefly and the salt layers just got redissolved so they don't show up in the sedimentary record?
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