Milagro means miracle. Water means power. I mean to sit on this mesa this evening and enjoy the view of Mono Lake and the mountains beyond, and try not to think too much.
The creeks that feed this landlocked sea were first diverted in 1940 and put to work making power. The 6,000 foot vertical drop on the long journey to L.A. produced lots of electricity. All the freshwater was put to work. None was left to playfully wind its way down the last few miles of Lee Vining and Rush Creeks and into the brine. Seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Wasn’t letting freshwater flow into a saltwater lake wasteful? Plus, the diversions made use of tunnels and turbines that were already in place down in the Owens Valley, which runs the along eastside of the Sierra Nevada. That was an extra bonus. Then with the creeks harnessed for fulltime work with no time off, as was foreseen, Mono Lake began to shrink and shrivel.
Now the creeks get some time off from work—thanks to some arcane laws, some people with persistence who thought the lake was worth saving, and in the end some compromise. And here is the miracle, Lee Vining and Rush Creeks with some time off from the work of man are restoring Mono Lake.
Like the creeks, we should all be allowed some time off, and we should allow ourselves time to take it. Work is a good thing when tempered with some time off to refresh and restore ourselves. Taking some time off in such a beautiful spot puts an odd thought into my head. Recovering me gazing at recovering Mono Lake are both the beneficiaries of a little time off from work. So, Mono Lake and I are spending some time reflecting.
This August day the brine shrimp have grazed the algae back, clarifying the surface waters of the lake. The lake’s green reflective hues of winter have changed to the blue reflective hues of summer. The surrounding desert displays a palette of pastels—the browns & whites of bare hillsides, the soft yellows & greens of rabbit brush, and the subdued grey/greens of sage. The Sierra Nevada looms large just to the west—a giant wall with a few patches of snow still tucked in the shadows near the summit. The jagged mountains seem to come straight up from the lakeshore with just a little ledge to accommodate the villages of Mono and Lee Vining and a thin ribbon of U.S. Highway 395.
Mono Lake’s recovery is decidedly in progress. The lake level is coming up. The islands that provide refuge for nesting birds are once again avian arks surrounded by water. And, where there are freshwater springs and seeps, the vegetation comes down to meet the new lakeshore.
Mono Lake hit its historical low water mark of 6,372 feet above sea level in 1981. Now the lake surface elevation is 6,384 feet, on its way to the 6,392 foot target. Just seven more feet to go. To be sure, when the lake level reaches 6,392 feet, it will be still be 25 feet lower than it was when the diversions started in 1940 and perhaps 15 feet lower than it was when California became a state in 1850. So, in a sense it’s a compromise. But, it’s a good compromise. The creeks still do some work for man. But given some time off, they have revived the milagro of Mono Lake.
There is nothing like a little time off from work to restore us all.
Hydrologist Clay Brandow has water on his mind most of the time, but these days is seeking other diversions.