Sunrise light on a grove of tufa towers emerging from the water of Mono Lake with soft green and dusty-red wild grasses in the foreground, Canada geese in the shallow water with reflections of the rocky towers, and desert hills in the distance.

2017 Mono Lake Calendar essay: Leopold’s capacity for self-renewal

This essay, written by Bill Trush, appears in the 2017 Mono Lake Calendar.

Lee Vining Creek delta. Photo by Rick Kattelmann.
Lee Vining Creek delta. Photo by Rick Kattelmann.

Each field season traveling south to “the lake” I stop at the Highway 395 overlook located just before the highway twists its way down to the Mono Basin floor. If I am lucky, no one else is there. I get out of the car, stretch (after the ten-hour drive from Humboldt County), then find just the right boulder to sit on, or two boulders to nestle between, depending on the wind. This is my time to get reacquainted. I have been privileged to study an incredible ecosystem that has schooled me patiently and made me a better scientist. I particularly like arriving near nightfall.

Hello Mono Lake. Nice to be here again. Remember me? I inhale deeply to taste and smell the thin air. I strain to see Rush and Lee Vining creeks on the far side of the lake. Just as I thought, both creeks are still there. I note the lake level and the wave pattern (if sufficient light) generated by the prevailing wind. If the ants do not find me, I might remain a half hour or two. Eventually, though in just a moment, I know it is time to go. I jump up, stretch again, and get back into the car now ready to attack the week ahead.

I’m one of the original “three amigos” stream scientists (Rich Ridenhour and Chris Hunter the other two) brought on board by Judge Finney in 1994 to break an impasse. The Restoration Technical Committee, tasked by the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to guide restoration in the Mono Basin, got bogged-down frequently because of its five-member consensus decision-making. With us three independent scientists as additional committee members, the judge’s new six-vote majority greatly improved the committee’s overall productivity.

A Ph.D. restoration scientist should know how to evaluate ecosystem health, just as any medical doctor does for patients. Most people would agree that a doctor should hold some professional insight as to what a healthy patient is when asked. But I’ve disappointed students and colleagues for years by not offering a legitimate definition for “ecosystem health.” I’ve tried hard; even Wikipedia failed me. In front of seven hundred attendees at an aquatic ecosystem conference in Seattle, I resorted to quoting from the Tao Te Ching when asked the dreaded question. You really could hear a pin drop. My quest for this holy grail of a single sentence (and an end to public embarrassment) ended unexpectedly two years ago at a screening of Green Fire, a documentary on Aldo Leopold’s legacy as the most influential conservationist of the 20th Century. In the complete dark of the theater, I wrote down the four magic words on a dollar bill retrieved from my wallet, to never forget.

He didn’t need to call an ecosystem an “ecosystem” back in the 1930s and 1940s to know what an ecosystem is. In fact, I don’t think there has been an ecologist, alive or dead, that has achieved Leopold’s understanding. Instead of “ecosystem” he called it the “land organism.”

Conservation is a state of health in the land. The land consists of soil, water, plants, and animals, but health is more than a sufficiency of these components. It is a state of vigorous self-renewal in each of them, and in all collectively. Such collective functioning of interdependent parts for the maintenance of the whole is characteristic of an organism. In this sense land is an organism, and conservation deals with its functional integrity, or health.

—From Leopold’s 1944 essay Conservation: In Whole or in Part?

For me, no other definition comes close. The capacity for self-renewal—those four words I wrote on the dollar bill—could apply to defining our personal health as readily as it does an ecosystem’s. Perhaps that is why Leopold’s definition is so appealing. But does Leopold’s definition trade an indefinable noun (health) for an indefinable phrase (capacity for self-renewal)? What does capacity for self-renewal really mean, and as a scientist, how do I measure it objectively?

With more water reaching Mono Lake, the SWRCB directed the stream scientists to specify how streamflow releases could (paraphrasing from the Order) restore functional and self-sustaining stream systems and trout populations with healthy riparian ecosystem components to Rush Creek and Lee Vining Creek. Though lacking the near poetic ring of “capacity for self-renewal,” the SWRCB’s intent was the same: determine what the capacity for self-renewal requires. We embarked on an eight-year monitoring program funded by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power that lasted closer to 12 years to find out.

In 2010, the Synthesis of Instream Flow Recommendations Report was submitted in its final version to the SWRCB by now only two amigos, Ross Taylor and me. Our affinity for recovering ecological processes did not mirror the SWRCB timetable for meeting carefully crafted restoration termination criteria. Luna Leopold, Aldo Leopold’s son and my advisor/friend at UC Berkeley, elegantly defined (a chip off the old block?) a process as a physical impetus with an expected response. Table 3-1 in the Synthesis Report links streamflows to key desired ecological outcomes. For example, the release of streamflows below Grant Lake Reservoir simulating a snowmelt flood in late-spring (the physical impetus) elevates the groundwater table, thereby accelerating recovery of Rush Creek’s floodplain cottonwoods (the expected ecological response/outcome).

When will we know that the capacity for self-renewal in Rush and Lee Vining creeks, and throughout the Mono Basin, has been achieved? In some ways, I think the capacity has already arrived, through the tireless diligence of many. However, the one prime recovery ingredient for which we have no authority or leverage is time. The closest we can hope is assuring ourselves and all interested parties that the recommended actions (i.e., the impetuses) will produce the desired ecological outcomes on which self-renewal relies.

While at the Rush Creek delta as night fell, I sensed the wheels of renewal continuously turning all around. I remembered Yogi Berra’s enigmatic quote: The future isn’t what it used to be. It made me smile, then sigh. Our reassembled Humpty Dumpty of stream ecosystems will have pieces missing and missed. But then I realized with some relief that the future never is.

Bill Trush is Co-Director of the Humboldt State University River Institute and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Environmental Science & Management in Arcata, California. Appointed by the State Water Resources Control Board, he has been a stream ecosystem scientist in the Mono Basin since 1995.


  1. I recently became a member of the Mono Lake committee group. For years I’ve been aware of the struggles of Mono Lake in a vague way. This article clearly explains to me, a laymen, what we are fighting for in clear language. Thank you.