Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 11, 2017

Mono Lake: Bizarre, Dramatic, Threatened

This post is about two subjects. The secondary subject is a perennial concern of Californians: water. The primary subject is a body of water: Mono Lake:

Mono Lake Brad Nixon 007 (640x254)

Mono Lake (pronounced moe-noe) is near the eastern border of California, due east of San Francisco. At 55,000 acres, it’s the 4th-largest lake in the state. It’s also a remarkable environment, set against the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west.

Mono Lake Brad Nixon 004 (640x427)

The lake is ancient, approximately 750,000 years old. It fills an endorheic basin, into which streams flow, but out of which no water runs. Over thousands of years, water captured in the basin became increasingly saline, providing a medium in which specialized algae thrived, fostering a species of brine shrimp. In turn, those shrimp became an important food source to millions of migratory birds. Mono Lake is an important waystation and nesting ground for approximately 2 million birds each year (and an excellent place for birdwatching).

Mono Lake Brad Nixon 006 (640x421)

The ecology and hydrology of the lake is a complex system, interwoven with myriad dependencies like the brine shrimp and birds, affected by contingencies including rainfall and, notably, human beings.

In 1941, the growth of Los Angeles led the city to extend the reach of its aqueduct system far north to tap the streams supplying water to Mono Lake, more than 300 miles from L.A. Beginning in 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct had begun tapping Owens Lake and the Owens River. Owens Lake, once more than 100 square miles in extent, had become a dry basin. A staggering achievement. It was Mono Lake’s turn. L.A. needed water, and tapped streams feeding the lake.

In 40 years, beginning in 1941, the level of the lake fell by 45 feet and the salinity level nearly doubled. The impact on the algae, brine shrimp and birds was dire. Mono Lake was in a death spiral.

Mono Lake Brad Nixon 008 (640x426)

The shores of the lake had always been a dry, harsh environment, due to the salty water. In 1872, Mark Twain described Mono in Roughing It as a “lifeless, treeless, hideous desert… the loneliest place on earth.” Today we see Mono Lake at a much lower level, and it looks even more otherworldly.

The drastic lowering of the lake revealed previously submerged “tufa towers,” formed as calcium-rich water from springs bubbled up into the salty lake. The calcium reacted with carbonates in the alkaline lake water and formed underwater “towers,” some 30 feet high.

Mono Lake Brad Nixon 002 (640x416)

They’re surreal, otherworldly, formed by nature, but being able to not only see them but walk among them is not a natural occurrence. They should be submerged.

Mono Lake Marcy Vincent 003 (640x426)

Thanks to energetic work by dedicated conservationists, court orders have established a minimum water level for the lake, and the aqueduct system may not remove water from the watershed once the lake reaches that level.

There’s more good news at this moment, as I write. An extraordinary series of storms is delivering large amounts of precipitation to the Sierra Nevada mountains (and much of California). In the past week, the level of the lake has risen 6 inches. That isn’t a significant portion of 40 feet, but it does represent a great deal of water. A piece in today’s Los Angeles Times provides some additional perspective.

(In fact, do not try to drive to Mono Lake today. U.S. Route 395 is currently closed due to severe whiteout conditions, with winds up on mountain ridges reaching 150 mph.)

Immediately adjacent to Mono Lake is the Mono-Inyo chain of volcanic cinder cones (there is still seismic/volcanic activity in the area) that present a steep climb, but excellent views of the lake. Wear real shoes, not sandals: Volcanic rock, which includes obsidian on those slopes, is razor-sharp.

Mono Lake is protected within a state reserve, but I’ve found the most informative website to be that of the non-profit Mono Lake Committee who are carrying on the work of preserving the impressively complex and critically important ecological system.

Mono Lake is eminently visitable. The lake is circled in blue below.


Access is from the major north-south route, U.S. 395 near the junction with State Route 120, which transverses the upper portion of Yosemite National Park, west of Mono. There’s a visitor center and trails, and you’re on the south side of the lake, the primary area to see the tufa towers. It’s approximately 5-1/2 hours from both Los Angeles and San Francisco (check weather conditions in winter!) and nearly 6 hours from Las Vegas.

You’ll be relatively close to Lake Tahoe (top circle), Yosemite National Park, Death Valley National Park, Devil’s Postpile National Monument (blue star), Manzanar National Historic Site and numerous other points of interest.

There may be no more compelling example of the complexity of natural ecosystems and how violently they can collide with human engineering. Go see, appreciate, learn and, perhaps, find a lesson to take with you. We have only one home.

If you want to see a live view of Mono Lake from Lee Vining, on the north shore, CLICK HERE and scroll down. (Pacific Time Zone)

Have you been to Mono Lake? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. One photo © Marcy Vincent 2017 used by kind permission. Map © Google.



  1. Otherworldly is a great word – and, despite the good news you rightly celebrate, it’s a grim foreshadowing of the direction of travel for our whole planet.


    • One can but try. We can act for change. Thanks.


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