Lake Mono in Recovery

Jane Kay
March 03, 2007 | Science News

In the FOSS Populations and Ecosystems Course for middle school, students use Mono Lake, an important alkaline lake, as a simple ecosystem case study. They study the functional roles of populations to construct a food web. Mono Lake was the focus of an ecological survey thirty years ago when a dozen students from Stanford University, UC Davis, and elsewhere camped at ancient Mono Lake for more than two months. They were studying the factors that were contributing to the death of Mono Lake as a result of massive water diversions to Los Angeles.

In July 2006, the same group returned to Mono Lake for a reunion. The former students were now college professors, government scientists, an inventor, a physician, and high school teachers. Their historic efforts in 1976 once inspired the "Save Mono Lake" bumper stickers that were attached to their vans. The exciting news they were there to celebrate was that Mono Lake had recovered. Its level continues to rise, and the ecosystem is thriving!

The group studied the birds, insects, phytoplankton, salinity, and hydrology in 1976. Their work supported the 1983 ruling of the California Supreme Court's that the state must protect natural resources such as Mono Lake under the state Constitution's public trust doctrine. It was this ruling that sent Mono Lake on the road to recovery, saving it from the fate that turned Southern California's Owens Lake into a 110-square-mile salt flat in the 1920s.

The students work in 1976 was just the beginning. Some of the initial studies involved collecting algae samples while teetering in a small boat rocking on the waves of Mono Lake. Other research involved the water chemistry of the lake and the tufa towers. Other students counted birds and observed other organisms. Some measured ground water levels, evaporation, and river flow. Once the students published their findings, further research by other scientists was conducted. It was shown that Mono Lake's ecosystem was on the verge of collapse.

When the group returned to celebrate Mono Lake's amazing recovery, they found a thriving lake freshened by a record amount of winter and spring runoff from the tributary creeks. The lake was teeming with brine shrimp and alkali flies that feed the birds. Bright green native grasses had grown large enough to cover the once-exposed lake bottom. The old land bridges that had allowed coyotes to eat gull eggs and baby birds were once again inundated. A new crop of tufa crystals were created from freshwater springs that bubble up from the lake's bottom. Their continued growth will eventually form new tufa towers. Jeffrey pines, buffalo berry bushes, and Woods' roses are flourishing. The willow flycatcher, absent from Mono Lake for years, has returned. Known as the "ivory-billed woodpecker of Mono Lake," the flycatcher is thriving with the resurgence of the native buffalo berries and Woods' roses.

Encourage your students to do some online research to find out more about Mono Lake's recovery. Some topics they might explore are:

  • The organisms they studied in FOSS Populations and Ecosystems and their status in the recovery. Which have recovered and which have not?
  • The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's role in the collapse and later recovery of Mono Lake.
  • The Mono Basin Research Group's efforts in Mono Lake's recovery.
  • The efforts of the Mono Lake Committee.
  • Recent research done by PRBO Conservation Science (formerly known as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory).
  • The California Water Resources Control Board decision regarding Los Angeles's water rights.

You can read the San Francisco Chronicle article online.