If you drive up the the eastern side of California, you’ll encounter three ancient lakebeds transformed by human engineering during the last century. The sequence goes like this: Salton Sea, Owens Valley, Mono Lake. We visited all three on a recent road trip. Since returning I’ve learned that their stories continue to unfold.
The Salton Sea
The Salton Sea, almost twice the size of Lake Tahoe, was created accidentally in 1905 when an irrigation project went out of control and, for a year and a half, sucked the Colorado river into what had been a dry lakebed. As a recent immigrant to California I can confirm that many natives don’t know much, if anything, about this place. A 2004 documentary narrated by John Waters, Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, traces its arc through a boom era of sport fishing and real estate speculation to what is now a living ghost town. For decades people have talked about saving the Salton Sea. That may once have meant restoring California’s “lost Riviera” but nowadays it’s all about mitigating an environmental disaster.
The Salton Sink is a low-lying basin that has flooded and dried many times over hundreds of thousands of years. What makes the current drying phase different is that the only inflow now is agricultural runoff with high concentrations of pesticides. As the lake evaporates, toxic dust goes windborne, threatening not only the Salton Sea communities, but also nearby Mexicali, Mexico, a metropolitan area with a million people. Meanwhile the lake’s increasing salinity is ruining the habitat of millions of migratory birds. These looming health and environmental crises motivated California to allocate $200 million as part of a successful June 2018 ballot initiative (Prop. 68) to stabilize the Salton Sea. (Another $200 million won’t be forthcoming because it was part of a failed follow-on ballot initiative in November 2018, Prop. 3.)
In an effort to buy time, a 2003 agreement to transfer water from the Imperial Valley to San Diego required the release of “mitigation water” to the Salton Sea. That ended in 2017 with no clear roadmap in place. What would it mean to stabilize the Salton Sea? A dwindling Colorado River won’t be the answer. It may be possible to import seawater from the Pacific, or the Gulf of California, to create a “smaller but sustainable” future that balances the needs of the region’s people and wildlife in a context of growing crises of drought and fire. Dry methods of dust suppression might also help. But all methods will require major engineering of one kind or another. The cost of that 1905 accident continues to grow.
The Owens Valley
Further north lies Owens Lake, mostly drained since 1913 when William Mulholland began siphoning its water into the LA aqueduct. The movie Chinatown is a fictionalized account of the battle for that water. What remains is mostly a vast salt flat that’s patrolled by mining vehicles and was, until recently, the nation’s worst source of dust pollution. From highway 395 it still looks like the surface of some other planet. But mitigation began at the turn of this century, and by 2017 LA’s Department of Water and Power had spent nearly $2 billion on what a modern western explorer known as StrayngerRanger describes as “a patchwork of dust-smothering techniques, including gravel, flooded ponds and rows of planted vegetation that cover nearly 50 square miles — an area more than twice the size of Manhattan.”
A key innovation, according to the LA Times, “involves using tractors to turn moist lake bed clay into furrows and basketball-sized clods of dirt. The clods will bottle up the dust for years before breaking down, at which point the process will be repeated.” This dry method was a big success, the dust has settled, public trails opened in 2016, and as Robin Black’s photography shows, life is returning to what’s left of the lake.
The LA Times:
In what is now hailed as an astonishing environmental success, nature quickly responded. First to appear on the thin sheen of water tinged bright green, red and orange by algae and bacteria were brine flies. Then came masses of waterfowl and shorebirds that feed on the insects.
This was never supposed to happen, and it’s a BIG DEAL. This, the habitat creation and management. This, the welcoming of the public to the lake. This is a huge victory for the groups in the Owens Valley who fought so tirelessly to make this happen.
We need to celebrate environmental successes and learn from them. And on this trip, the best one was yet to come.
Mono Lake, near the town of Lee Vining (“the gateway to Yosemite”), was the next object of LA’s thirst. Its inflow was diverted to the aqueduct, and the lake almost went dry. Now it’s filling up again, thanks to the dedicated activists who formed the Mono Lake Committee 40 years ago, sued the LA Department of Water and Power, won back 3/4 of the inflow, and as chronicled in their video documentary The Mono Lake Story, have been stewarding the lake’s recovery ever since.
Today you can walk along the newly-restored Lee Vining Creek trail and feel the place coming alive again. There’s been cleanup and trail-building and planting but, for the most part, all that was needed was to let the water flow again.
How did LA compensate for the lost flow? This 30-second segment of the documentary answers the question. The agreement included funding that enabled LA to build a wastewater reclamation plant to make up the difference. It wasn’t a zero-sum game after all. There was a way to maintain a reliable water supply for LA and to restore Mono Lake. It just took people with the vision to see that possibility, and the will to make it real.