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Mono Lake was saved, but now state park faces shutdown

Kla4067/FlickrMono Lake gets about 250,000 visitors each year.

Mono Lake is the second-largest lake in California – a gorgeous, otherworldly expanse of aquamarine saltwater in the high desert east of Yosemite National Park.

Its very existence is a modern environmental success story. As late as 1984, the lake was condemned to become a 65-square-mile salt flat, as the city of Los Angeles had dammed its tributary streams and diverted the water into the LA aqueduct.

It was saved, in dramatic fashion, by an unlikely coalition of trout fishermen, environmentalists and water-rights lawyers. Today, it’s recovering from 50 years of abuse.

But now, as part of a round of budget cuts, Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered the closure of the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, the state park established as part of the effort to save the lake.

It’s one of 70 state parks [PDF] being shuttered in hopes of saving $22 million. 

Mono Lake's boosters say closing the park won‘t save the state a dime. But they say it will derail volunteer programs that have allowed the park to operate for years at minimal cost to the state.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Geoff McQuilkin, executive director of the Mono Lake Committee, the organization founded in the 1970s to save Mono Lake.

About 250,000 people visit the park each year, McQuilkin said in a phone interview. A couple of years ago, budget cuts took away the park’s ranger, by McQuilkin’s account. Instead, a ranger from the state park at the ghost town of Bodie 20 miles away occasionally drops in on Mono Lake.

“We really have about 10 percent of one ranger,” McQuilkin said. After the park shuts down, the state says it will continue to send a ranger over once in a while to look in on things.

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“The reality is that’s what they do now when we’re open,” McQuilkin said. But the closure will sideline the interpretative programs, kayak tours and other activities that have been paid for by private donations and staffed by volunteers.

The committee is organizing a letter-writing campaign.

“We are exploring how does one get off that (park closure) list,” he said.

Clark Blanchard, spokesman for the state Natural Resources Agency, said the park was slated to be shut down because of relatively low attendance and low revenues.

  "The park is also located in a very remote location which increases operating costs," he wrote in an email. "Unfortunately, the cost for one ranger’s time is not the only operating cost."

Closures are set for July, 2012, and the state is seeking partners who could operate parks that would otherwise be shut down, he wrote.

Closing the park would be a shame. It has spectacular scenery, including the weird limestone formations, called tufa, on the lakeshore. More important, the park provides a reminder that environmental disasters can be reversed.

Here’s how Mono Lake got in trouble: Early in the 20th century, the city of Los Angeles  bought up water rights along the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada range.

The water, shipped south via the aqueduct, made the city’s explosive growth possible. But the project made a desert of much of the 75-mile-long Owens Valley, reducing flows in the Owens River to a trickle.

By the 1940s, the city's Department of Water & Power had extended the aqueduct north into the Mono Basin and dammed the creeks that fed Mono Lake, court records show. In the decades that followed, the lake level dropped 30 feet. The creeks – once lovely, aspen-lined trout streams – became dry gulches that ran with water only after extraordinarily wet winters, when the city water department chose to release some water because the dams were brim-full.

In the fall of 1984, a local real estate man, Dick Dahlgren, went for a hike along a Mono Lake tributary called Rush Creek. Winter had been stormy, and the creek had water in it for a change.

As he told me in a 1985 interview for the old San Francisco Examiner, Dahlgren was shocked to see that the creek was teeming with trout. Fingerlings had apparently come over the top of the dam the previous winter and reproduced.

Dahlgren went back to his truck for his fly rod. The action was outstanding; in an hour, he said he caught and released 50 fish. He called them “Walt Disney trout” – fish with vivid Technicolor markings and wilder than a cartoon when they hit a fly.

Dahlgren may not have been particularly focused on Mono Lake, but he wanted to stop the Los Angeles water department from de-watering Rush Creek and destroying what was, even in its degraded state, a great trout stream.

Eventually, he teamed up with David Gaines, who came to the area with a Stanford University study group and stayed to form the Mono Lake Committee. They were joined by a Van Nuys lawyer and trout fisherman named Barrett McInerney.

McInerney found a long-ignored section of the state Fish and Game Code that seemed to require dam operators to maintain minimum outflows so that fish downstream can survive. A local judge issued a restraining order forcing the LA water department to keep the water flowing in Rush Creek – and thus, into Mono Lake.

After nearly a decade of litigation and negotiation, the department was required to maintain stream flows on all of Mono Lake’s tributaries.

Since then, the lake’s level has risen by 11 feet. It must rise another 10 feet to reach the level required by the state water board.

“We had a great winter, and the lake is rising,” McQuilkin said.


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Misinformation's picture
Fact: Mono Lake will NOT close, the Forest Service Manages South Tufa and has for years. Again I repeat the FOREST SERVICE is NOT going anywhere, Mono Lake itself is NOT closing.

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