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.

Reflections on 40 years: A current look at the Mono Lake Committee

Editor’s note: To celebrate the Mono Lake Committee’s 40th anniversary in the Newsletter, Sally Gaines, co-founder and Board Chair, is writing a series of reflections on the past, present, and future of the organization.

Today the Mono Lake Committee is widely respected as a model environmental group. I attribute this to an incredible staff, now numbering 15, as well as 11 seasonal staff, plus a cohesive Board of Directors. The policy issues grow ever more complex, and drag on for years, if not decades. The longevity of our staff means we are forever reeducating new bureaucratic staff we work with.

Several bequests have stabilized our financial picture, enabling us to improve the front of our headquarters, still and forever in Lee Vining. We continue to have excellent information for visitors, a fitting selection of books, clothing, and gifts, as well as staff offices in back. We are never changing our name either. Photo by Arya Harp.

Scientific research continues; some is old: California Gulls, Eared Grebes, lake level, salinity, stream restoration. Newer topics include: Greater Sage Grouse, Willow Flycatchers, Ospreys, woodpeckers in burned forests, bacteria living on arsenic (well, maybe not), scuba-equipped alkali flies, Mars landing rovers practicing in the sand, and much more.

With in-kind donations, we have made modest improvements to the Mono Basin Outdoor Education Center, where underserved students from Los Angeles are introduced to dark skies, camping, and the Mono Lake ecosystem and watershed. The program is our answer to the question “where does my water come from?” in a way that inspires the next generation of water leaders. Photo by Antonia Chihuahua.
At our converted motel property in town, we offer basic housing for researchers doing the scientific studies that are the basis of our policy work, like extracting core samples of the sediments beneath Mono Lake. Photo by Bartshe Miller.

In the early years of the Committee we never imagined the scope of the issues Mono Lake faces today, with the exception of the need for a retrofit to the Grant Lake Reservoir dam to be able to restore Rush Creek. Years of negotiating with the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) and years of studies on the streams (wisely mandated by the California State Water Resources Control Board) have put us on the precipice of retrofitting that critical piece of aqueduct infrastructure, and a whole new level of stream restoration it will enable.

Five years ago DWP signed on to the Mono Basin Stream Restoration Agreement, which includes a “hole in the dam” at Grant Lake Reservoir that will enable much-needed restoration benefits to Rush Creek. Photo by Arya Harp.

This model of working with, instead of against, DWP toward solutions that balance multiple needs in any given situation, has proven to be the most effective way to work for Mono Lake. From stream restoration to subdivision proposals to highway projects to air quality issues to the effects of drought to State Park closures to recreational drones to threats to the public trust and on—we are here every day working with many agencies and organizations to look out for Mono Lake.

No longer just the young hippies invading town, the Committee is part of the community with staff owning houses, having kids in the schools, serving on the local volunteer fire department and Regional Planning Advisory Committee, coaching kids’ sports teams, and offering college scholarships for Mono County high schoolers. Some of our staff are now onto a new phase of their life: retirement.

Keeping an eye on the Mono Basin means regular monitoring of lake level, streamflows, and water temperatures as well as documenting wildlife and changes at the shoreline and along tributary streams. Photo by Robbie Di Paolo.
The Committee’s large volume of mail (transported back and forth to the office via little red wagon) in and out of the Lee Vining post office has probably helped it survive cutbacks. The ripples of Committee member dollars helping restore Mono Lake are felt in many ways in our little town, which is more vibrant than ever. Photo by Andrew Youssef.

Computers, smartphones, etc. have revolutionized how we do things each day, but not the content or human aspect with our members. As the person who originally set up the membership system on Hollerith cards in a box, I have always felt that keeping people’s contact information accurate is an important part of membership relations. Forty years later and 16,000 members strong, technological advances have made it possible to keep that human connection, and we can fix member records quickly in the office. If you call during business hours, you will get a real live person. We are here for you and of course, for Mono Lake.

If you’d like to hear more from Sally, you can sign up to be a monthly donor—a Guardian of the Lake. Each month Sally writes a short letter with current Committee and Mono Basin news to all Guardians. Call Membership Coordinator Ellen King at (760) 647-6595 or sign up here.

This post was also published as an article in the Summer 2018 Mono Lake Newsletter (pages 8 and 9).