Francesca and I were heading west across the Nevada desert. After crossing into California we saw a mirage of blue to our left, a cool respite from the scorching heat. A sign said, "Mono Lake".
"Save Mono Lake" bumper stickers were abundant in the 70's. I learned they referred to a huge California Lake that got sucked dry to water the lawns of Los Angeles. I remember the haunting images of strange protuberances rising up from what water remained.
Last week we drove down to the water's edge and learned the details. Mark Twain called it "America's Dead Sea".
Mono Lake wasn't dead when he visited 150 years ago. It was alive in strange ways, an inland sea so high in salt content that few life forms could live there.
Algae loved it there as did small brine shrimp that ate it. Sea birds by the millions made it their home to feast on the shrimp that swirled above the "tufa". These were the jagged vertical shapes that rose up from the lake bed much like the whimsical forms of a coral reef. Tufas were formed by the bubbling minerals in underwater springs.
Its like standing in a dead coral reef rising up from the sea.
The lake was continually fed by six streams tumbling down from the mountains. Eighty years ago a problem arose, wealthy Los Angeles was hungry for water. It purchased the water rights to four of these streams and, in 1941, began diverted the most of the lake's fresh water to southern California. This added billions of dollars to L.A. real estate values.
It also ruined Mono Lake. The water level dropped 50 feet exposing the strange tufas for the first time. The same salt with much less water cause the lake's salinity to rise 250%. Alkalinity rose as well and much of the lake's life died.
Further, the people who had depended on the diverted streams had their lives "dry up" as well.
This led to the "Save Mono Lake" movement in the 1970's.
The lake has been improved, somewhat. 40% of the original water courses have been restored. The lake is now about 30-feet below its natural level and less tufas are exposed.
Remember the movie, "Chinatown"? It's tale of greed, incest, and murder was centered around the City of Angels' thirst for water in the early 40's.
Mono Lake is a strange and sad place to visit, like any natural resource harmed by man. It is not unlike Florida's Everglades which has had much of its water cut off so more houses can be built and more sugarcane grown.
Mono Lake tastes much more salty than an ocean. You easily notice a briny slime rubbing its water between your fingers.
Its all there to see, the green algae being eaten by bugs and shrimps who are being devoured by abundant birds. I guess we were seeing what the partial restoration has done.
It makes for a solemn visit. I couldn't help looking up at the sad stone man standing far out in the lake. If he had any questions, I had no answers.