|Highway 120 near the California/Nevada border at sunset © Sean Arbabi|
Originally part of the Great Basin, Mono Lake is a one-of-a-kind place. Home to trillions of brine shrimp and alkali flies, and over 2,000,000 migratory waterbirds, including 35 species of shorebirds, use the ancient lake as a resting, nesting, and feeding place. When you walk along the lakeshore viewing thousands of flies fan out as they avoid each of your footsteps, touch the salty waters painted red by the abundance of tiny shrimp, and gaze in awe at the monstrous clouds rolling over the Sierra, you feel how special and unique this body of water really is.
|The southern shores of Mono Lake and the Sierra Nevada at sunrise © Sean Arbabi|
A lake with no outlets, the alpine streams and annual rainfall that feed it remain in the natural bowl for tens of thousands of years- that is until Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power (the DWP) began searching for new sources of water to supply their ever-growing Southern California metroplex. From 1941 to 1990, the lake level began dropping as the DWP diverted unrestrained amounts of water from Mono Basin streams. Mono Lake dropped 45 vertical feet over 50 years, lost half its volume, doubled in salinity, and exposed previously submerged tufa towers (limestone structures that grow exclusively underwater).
|Moonrise over the Eastern Sierra, as seen from the southern Tufa-lined shores of Mono Lake © Sean Arbabi|
|Courtesy of NASA|
People like David, and those who worked tirelessly at the Mono Lake Committee, fought Los Angeles’ DWP from draining the lake through numerous ecological studies, court cases, and injunctions. I 1989 I joined the cause, photographing the Mono Lake Bike-A-Thon, capturing over a hundred riders as they peddled 332 miles from the DWP offices to the shores of the lake, raising funds for the fight. Many of the decisions that came in favor of Mono Lake and the Mono Lake Basin allow us all- humans, birds, and wildlife- to enjoy its wonders. Sadly, Owens Lake, an ancient body of water covering 108 square miles nestled in southern Owens Valley 10,000 feet below the towering Whitney range, was not able to be saved, drained by the DWP over a span of roughly 40 years. Full in 1913, desiccated by the mid 1940s. Much of the Owens River was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and today the mostly dry lake bed is the largest single source of dust pollution in the United States.
|Looking west at Highway 136 and Owens Lake below the Whitney Range © Sean Arbabi|
|David Gaines (courtesy of the Mono Lake Committee)|
So why did a photo of a highway remind me of David Gaines, a person I never met? Well, David was tragically killed in a car accident in the winter of 1988 along Highway 395, south of Mono Lake, on a stretch of road similar to the one I posted above. I drove along the road he did a few months later and captured that photo above on my first visit to the area. Someday I will use that road to take my two daughters to the shores of Mono Lake. I will tell them about the history of this region, about its ancient waters, and how we are still able to share it with future generations thanks to people like David Gaines. He may have been taken far too early, but he gave far more to the world than most.