Thanksgiving Day, 2014: Twenty Years Later At Mono
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake
Tufa State Reserve
I parked the car in one of the spaces with a charging
unit, slid my credit card through the slot in the meter,
then connected the plug. On cold, cloudy Thanksgiving
afternoons in the mountains, I make it a point to keep
the electric motor fully charged. Just as we always
kept our gas tanks topped off, in the old days, as a
Two months earlier, with a lot of old friends, we'd
celebrated the 20th anniversary of the 1994 decision
that had saved Mono Lake. But for Thanksgiving in this
year 2014, we'd wanted our family together for a more
personal celebration. This was the very first trip to
the South Tufa area of Mono Lake for my daughter-in-law
and 6-year old granddaughter.
"So this is what 6,392 feet looks like,"
my son said. He'd grown up at Mono Lake, but lived far
away now and hadn't seen it in many years.
"Well, it finally reached that elevation back
in June, but you know how the annual pattern goes. The
lake's down a foot now. Won't start up again until the
Our little group walked down the South Tufa area trail:
grandma and grandpa (retired from our ranger jobs for
10 years now), son and daughter-in-law and granddaughter.
"The tufa area doesn't look all that different
from here, Dad," my son said.
"No, not from the parking lot. Wait until we get
down to the water. It's a lot shorter walk than it used
The tufa area didn't appear different from that angle,
because the higher lake still left a band of towers
exposed between the parking area and the shore. But
my attention was focused on the reactions of the two
newcomers to Mono Lake.
"It's so quiet here," was my daughter-in-law's
first comment about the site.
That was praise, not a complaint. Late-November's chilly
weather still keeps visitor numbers down, even though
the population of California has doubled since the Mono
Lake decision was made back in 1994. The quiet of such
wild places has become ever more precious, over the
My little granddaughter, clutching her father's hand,
was almost too quiet, it seemed to me. But then, a lot
of things about this place were a first for her. She'd
asked us about snakes and bears her first night at our
mountain home. So Grandma had taught her the song "Bats
Eat Bugs, They Don't Eat People."*
That had eased fears of the unknown some. But it'd
also shown me how important it was to get this little
girl out into the real world more.
So we started looking closely at things, together.
We were passing between rows of tufa towers and getting
near the lake shore. I told her how the tall rocks formed
from mixing two kinds of water together.
That got me an "Oh, Grandpa" disbelieving
look. So I found a spring emerging under the lake and
pointed to calcium carbonate crystals busily building
a miniature tower. Soon she found several more such
places and proudly showed her parents.
Before long, wiggly little brine shrimp in the water
caught her eye. "Look!" she cried, trying
to catch them to show us. It was too cold for hands
in the water, so we used the thermos cup (Grandma always
comes prepared) to scoop some up.
We identified males and females, and saw some mating
in progress. ("Making babies, huh?" was her
nonchalant comment.) And then I told her that all the
adult shrimp we see in late November are going to die
soon, as the lake gets cold. But their eggs will be
waiting at the bottom of the lake to hatch next spring.
She felt better, but wanted to know what the poor babies
would do without their mommies and daddies around.
My son asked, "Has the reduced salinity helped
the shrimp and fly populations?"
"Just like the research predicted, 20 years ago,
Son," I said. "Or close enough, anyway. It's
almost a linear relationship: as the salinity goes back
down, productivity in the lake has gone back up. Of
course, we had trillions of shrimp and flies even in
1994, but they're better off now and "
"And in far less danger of the lake water reaching
salinities that would've killed them off," my wife
added. "If we get back into a long drought, now,
we have 17 more feet of buffer against those thresholds."
Our granddaughter found this whole discussion boring.
Her attention had shifted to birds on the lake. "Ducks!"
she yelled. The place's natural quiet was succumbing
to her growing enthusiasm.
Eared grebes dotted the water nearby. But it took binoculars
to really appreciate how many of them there were. We
shared ours, looking across mile after mile of the inland
sea at literally hundreds of thousands of migratory
"What about the ducks and geese issue, Dad? Weren't
they hoping to see a million or so more, if the lake
Those had been the numbers, before stream diversions
began in 1941, and there had been increases in waterfowl
numbers at Mono Lake. But the response had been less
than hoped for.
Migrating waterfowl need habitat sites north and south
of Mono Lake, too, so improving things at Mono alone
could only accomplish so much.
"It's too soon to give up, though. We've only
just reached the target lake levels and salinities that
go with them. Ask me again in five years, after the
ecosystem has had time to fully adapt, and the surrounding
wetlands sites have had time to mature, bordering this
We had been moving steadily along the shore. Daughter-in-law
was photographing the off-shore towers and their reflections
in the water.
"So, Son, what seems the biggest change to you,
now that the lake is so high?"
"There didn't use to be so many towers poking
out of the water, did there? It's even prettier this
way, I think, with a forest of them out there in the
water, but still visible."
He looked at me. "That was one of those issues
you had to deal with, back then, wasn't it? The impression
people had that the towers might all be gone if the
lake came up."
"It was. And, if we have time, I want to take
you to some of the other tufa areas. The north-shore
groves, where towers were getting covered by willows
back in the '90s, are nicer than ever."
"And the air-quality issue? The alkali-flat dust
"Just a nasty memory."
My granddaughter had discovered "a treasure,"
shiny black obsidian. Grandma explained why even the
little rocks have to stay here for others to see. The
two of them strolled off hand-in-hand, talking about
volcanoes that helped form this place.
Son and daughter-in-law had fallen back, together studying
the vista: mile after mile of lake covered by feeding
birds, the snow-covered wall of the Sierra, tufa towers,
clouds sailing overhead.
Sound carries well in a place like this. I heard her
say, in a hushed voice, "I had no idea. This is
We set out, day by day, to do our work. But it's the
big picture the long term, and the generations
to follow that gives it meaning.
*If you'd like the words to "Bats Eat Bugs",
call the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve at (760) 647-6331.
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