When I first viewed the list of the 70 State Parks scheduled for closure, my biggest surprise was seeing Mono Lake Tufa State Nature Reserve on the list. Is it possible that after decades of effort to save California's second largest lake, that we may lose it to budget cuts to save $111,000? The Mono Lake Basin is a partnership between the California State Parks, the National Parks and the National Forest Service. So, finding out what part is affected by the state closure is a tricky business.
To the best of my knowledge, the state park preserves the spectacular tufa towers. It also protects the lake surface itself as well as the wetlands that provide habitat for between one and two million birds that feed and rest at Mono Lake annually. 80% of all California Seagulls are hatched at Mono Lake, feeding on the millions of alkali flies that rest on the surface of the water.
Articles by both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Mono Lake Committee estimate savings obtained by closing this park to be anywhere from $111,000 to... ZERO!
I have long wanted to explore this lake, so I indulged myself with an overnight trip and a 3 hour kayak tour with a local naturalist. I arrived in the tiny hamlet of Lee Vining mid afternoon. I stopped at the very large visitor center (which is run by the National Park Service, not the state, so it will be staying open) and gathered some information from the rangers. It was suggested that I might enjoy hiking around the rim of Panum Crater, which would also give me a slightly different view for photographing the lake and tufas.
Panum Crater is on the south side of the lake and is one of the youngest volcanos in the area, about 700 years old. A hike on the barren, sand & gravel trail around the rim takes about an hour and offers aerial views of both the inside of the crater and the South Tufa area.
When it came to taking photos I felt the same as when I was at the Grand Canyon. You know that hundreds of thousands have come before you and taken the same shots you're taking, but you've just got to do it! 300+ camera clicks later and I was a happy camper.
After Panum Crater I drove another couple of miles to South Tufa Park. This is where the most spectacular of the tufa formations are. If the State Park Closes, this will not affect South Tufa Park. But, it will eliminate the wide variety of guided tours offered. Our guide, Oliver, lead us on a 90 minute excursion. The path down to the water is wheelchair accessible.
Oliver described the primary vegetation on the south shore: sage, rabbit brush and greasewood being the primary plant life that thrives in the harsh soil around the lake. Paintbrush plants and a yellow lily like flower called Blazing Star add occasional color to the landscape.
Our tour brought us right up to the tufas on land and had us slogging through puddles filled with thousands of alkali flies. Small natural hot springs dot the marshier parts of the lakelands, some still in use.
Our guide flagged questions from the adults, engaged the kids, and assisted the photographers. To see the tiny, 1/4 inch long brine shrimp, just dip a cup into the water to come up with half a dozen. As with all lakes that are high in salinity, the 65 square mile Mono Lake has no outlet. Throughout its long existence, salts and minerals have washed into the lake from Eastern Sierra streams, but nothing flows out. It is about 2 1/2 times as salty as the ocean and very alkaline.
The lake is, of course, most famous for her tufa formations, calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. This is the only place in the world where this occurs. Approaching them on land – and especially on water – felt like I was entering some weird combination of a sci-fi landscape and a Disneyland ride. A naturalist demonstrated how easily tufa are formed in Mono Lake by taking a jar of water, adding calcium and carbonate, and then pouring the contents into the lake. Within moments we could see small bits of tufa forming. Tufa are only formed underwater.
Sunday morning I took a three hour kayak tour with Caldera Kayaks. Our guide Stuart offered some excellent information about the ecology, environment and history of Mono Lake. When we stopped on shore for a break, he even read to us from Mark Twain's opinion of Mono Lake! We paddled up to Rush Creek, one of the lake's feeder streams. Where the fresh water combines with the salt, the fresh water sits several inches above the saline water and creates an interesting lens. Our kayak tour was skillfully led back to shore just as the afternoon winds began to kick up, so we only had to power paddle for about five minutes. Caldera Kayaks and other commercial boating groups will no longer be able to operate on the lake once the State Park closes.
I visited the Mono Lake Book Store, viewed a film on the history of the lake and signed a petition to keep the park open. The residents of the Eastern Sierras are determined to save their lake, and have a long history of doing so. Anyone living in Northern California from the late 70s on has seen the ever present "SAVE MONO LAKE" bumper stickers.
Mono Lake's existence is a modern environmental success story. It was saved, in dramatic fashion, by an unlikely coalition of trout fishermen, environmentalists and water-rights lawyers. Today, it’s recovering from 50 years of abuse. In 1941, the city of Los Angeles began diverting all of the lakes feeder streams for the city's drinking water. By the 1970s, the lake water level was reduced to half, thus increasing the salinity so that none of shrimp, flies, or birds that depended on the lake could survive. After years of legal wrangling, in 1994 a compromise was reached and half of the feeder streams were returned to the lake. The lake continues to recover, and in the meantime, Los Angeles has become one of the leading cities in water conservation! The photo of the long walkway is taken from the spot where the lake level was when water diversion began in 1941.
Now it’s one of 70 state parks being shuttered in hopes of saving $22 million. Mono Lake's boosters say closing the park won‘t save the state a dime, but rather will derail volunteer programs that have allowed the park to operate for years at minimal cost to the state.
About 250,000 people visit the park each year. A couple of years ago, budget cuts took away the park’s only state ranger. Now, a ranger from the state park of Bodie 20 miles away occasionally drops in on Mono Lake. The closure will sideline the interpretative programs, kayak tours and other activities that have been paid for by private donations and staffed by volunteers.
The committee is organizing a letter-writing campaign and exploring how to get off the "closure list." Closures are set for July, 2012, and the state is seeking partners who could operate parks that would otherwise be shut down.
Finally, before heading home, I stopped at the county park on the north end of the lake. This is where the official State Reserve is and therefore another area that will be shut down with state closure. There is a lovely, grassy picnic area, a wetlands, more tufa and a long planked walk way to the lake that is wheelchair accessible.
If nothing else, my tour guides wanted me to take away one thing. Mono Lake is a living lake, and not California's "Dead Sea." Oh yes, and it's pronounced Mo-No... the O is long. It is not pronounced like the kissing disease. The word Mono means "fly eater." The Paiute Indians traded the alkali fly eggs from the lake as a delicacy with their Yosemite neighbors.
SAVE MONO LAKE ! ! !
Hope to see you at the parks.