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.

Mono Basin Outdoor Education Center turns 25

Since 1994 the Mono Basin Outdoor Education Center has been connecting students from Los Angeles to the source of their water. Photo by Miranda Norlin.

“Where does your water come from?” This question has been asked to thousands of students visiting the Mono Basin Outdoor Education Center (OEC) from Los Angeles over the past 25 years. At the beginning of their week-long stay in the Mono Basin, some students are unsure.

By the end of the week, there is no question. They have played in high Sierra snow, traveled to the northern extent of the Los Angeles Aqueduct at Lee Vining Creek, pulled invasive plants along Mono Lake’s tributary streams, and pondered the total ecological destruction narrowly escaped at Mono Lake. Through these experiences, they learn where their water comes from, about themselves as individuals, and their importance to the future of Los Angeles and the Mono Basin alike.

This has been the goal of the program since it began in 1994—to connect the people of Los Angeles to the source of their water. The very first group, the Mothers of East Los Angeles, Santa Isabel was one of the community groups working to retrofit homes in LA with ultra-low-flush toilets. The cascading effects of that trip to Mono Lake inspired community groups to install over a million toilets, helping Angelenos make a measurable dent in their water use. The insights from that inaugural year still echo 25 years later as thousands of students gain this deeper sense of what it means to conserve water. They are empowered to make change in their communities and they become part of the Mono Lake legacy, and family.

The OEC program has matured and flourished since its founding. We have grown from a handful of groups each summer to a full season with a waiting list. The variety of participants is vast and includes school groups, community environmental justice groups, previously incarcerated people, scout troops, and more.

The humble house where we run the program has also gone through many changes. Solar panels, double-pane windows, and drip irrigation have made the house a better model for sustainability. The long-term lease we have with the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power means we are planning more updates to the OEC headquarters as the program continues to evolve.

As we look to the next 25 years, we will continue to offer this powerful experience to as many people as possible. We seek to improve our facilities, break down barriers that keep people from experiencing the natural world, and foster relationships between the Mono Lake Committee and OEC alumni.

We asked mark! Lopez, grandson of the founder of Mothers of East Los Angeles, to comment on his experience with the OEC:

“I look forward to the day my daughters Xole and Luna hit the age I was when I first visited Mono Lake—age eight—when its deepest scars were visible. I have visited every year since and multiple times some years, with four generations of my family and countless members of my community over the last 25 years. I’ve experienced and witnessed the deep connection and love that grows within once you feel connected to Mono Lake, and the correlating sense of responsibility to take care of this place. It happens almost instantaneously—I’ve felt it over the majority of my life, and my daughters will raise the fifth generation of my family with a perspective of only ever experiencing the healing of Mono Lake thanks to the Mono Lake Committee and all lovers of Mono Lake who have experienced the OEC program.”

Let’s raise our water bottles to the past 25 transformative years, and to the future generations who will become part of the Mono Lake story through the Mono Basin Outdoor Education Center.

This post was also published as an article in the Fall 2019 Mono Lake Newsletter (page 12).