U.S. Water News Online
LEE VINING, Calif. -- Mono Lake, the high desert
fascination of humorist Mark Twain that's nearly three times as salty
as the ocean, remains the home to trillions of brine shrimp where
thousands of California Gulls nest each spring -- all preserved
because of ecological activism.
Twenty years ago, after tireless efforts by the public, Congress
designated Mono Lake as the nation's first federal scenic area.
Now, some of those same concerned citizens, along with the U.S.
Forest Service, fear those protections are imperiled by a plan to
subdivide 120 acres for luxury homes on the lake's western shore.
"Everyone's lived with the scenic area regulations for 20 years,
and I'm sure they've at times been frustrated by them, but they've
worked," said Geoff McQuilkin, who helps lead the nonprofit Mono Lake
Committee, which opposes the proposal. "This is kind of the cutting
edge of bringing (development) to Mono Lake ... one of the last wild
corners of California."
A meeting between Monterey-based New Cities Land Co. and Mono
County planning officials is set, as the company prepares a revised
development proposal. Company officials did not return several
telephone calls from The Associated Press.
For more than four years, the Forest Service has been trying to
add the acres to Inyo National Forest, which includes Mono Lake. The
land has aspen groves, springs and a stream that attract wildlife to
the boundary where the Sierra Nevada range drops into the Great Basin
that stretches through Nevada into Utah.
The agency, according to forest supervisor Jeff Bailey, wants to
swap the property for some in the nearby resort community of Mammoth
Lakes. The deal, though, has been derailed by a squabble over price.
A Forest Service appraisal last year put the land's worth at about
half the price sought by the property's owners.
"We are so far apart in value that I don't think we can even come
close," Bailey said.
The original plan called for 24 to 30 homes scattered across a
highway from the lake, and the county expects the revised proposal to
also fit the homes into the hilly landscape to minimize the visual
and environmental impact. But the Forest Service ruled last year that
developing the property is "incompatible and detrimental to the
integrity of the Scenic Area".
County planners for years had assumed the Forest Service's land
restrictions precluded development, until a recent legal opinion held
that the county should proceed under its less restrictive zoning
If the Forest Service doesn't like the result, it has its own
options -- including condemning the land under the 1984 law creating
the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area. Bailey said he would
recommend that step, but McQuilkin fears the Bush administration
won't enforce the scenic area's ban on development if it comes to
condemning private property.
"It quickly moves out of local hands and moves to Washington,
where it becomes a political issue," McQuilkin said.
The lake sits on the sparsely inhabited border between California
and Nevada, just east of Yosemite National Park. Besides its
wildlife, it draws tourists to view tufa towers, oddly shaped
limestone deposits created by underwater springs. Just to the south
are the upheavals of the youngest volcanic chain in North America.
Among the first to widely report on the remote region was a young
Samuel Clemens, who had come West in the 1860s to seek his fortune in
the gold fields and later as a journalist and author. In his 1872
book, "Roughing It," Twain wonders at an isolated lake in which water
flows in but never flows out, evaporating instead at a rate of about
45 inches a year.
The lake was on a path to destruction after Los Angeles diverted
four tributary streams into the Los Angeles Aquaduct in 1941. The
move followed the much more publicized diversion to the south that
turned Owens Lake into a dusty plain; Mono Lake eventually lost half
its volume and doubled its salinity.
The federal scenic designation and subsequent California water
rights rulings in 1986 and 1994 helped reverse the decline, and the
lake is expected to reach what state and federal authorities set as
an "environmentally sustainable" level by 2014, still well shy of its
Mark Twain's observations on Mono Lake
Mark Twain was awed but not enthralled when he first saw Mono Lake
and reported his observations in his 1872 "Roughing It."
Here are some of his impressions found in the book:
"There are no fish in Mono Lake -- no frogs, no snakes, no
pollywogs -- nothing, in fact, that goes to make life desirable.
Millions of wild ducks and seagulls swim about the surface, but no
living thing exists under the surface, except a white feathery sort
of worm, one half an inch long, which looks like a bit of white
thread frayed out at the sides. If you dip up a gallon of water, you
will get about fifteen thousand of these. They give to the water a
sort of grayish-white appearance. Then there is a fly, which looks
something like our house fly. These settle on the beach to eat the
worms that wash ashore -- and any time, you can see there a belt of
flies an inch deep and six feet wide, and this belt extends clear
around the lake -- a belt of flies one hundred miles long. If you
throw a stone among them, they swarm up so thick that they look
dense, like a cloud."
"Mono Lake is a hundred and fifty miles in a straight line from
the ocean -- and between it and the ocean are one or two ranges of
mountains -- yet thousands of seagulls go there every season to lay
their eggs and rear their young. One would as soon expect to find
seagulls in Kansas."
"Half a dozen little mountain brooks flow into Mono Lake, but not
a stream of any kind flows out of it. It neither rises nor falls,
apparently, and what it does with its surplus water is a dark and
"In speaking of the peculiarities of Mono Lake, I ought to have
mentioned that at intervals all around its shores stand picturesque
turret-looking masses and clusters of a whitish, coarse-grained rock
that resembles inferior mortar dried hard; and if one breaks off
fragments of this rock he will find perfectly shaped and thoroughly
petrified gulls' eggs deeply imbedded in the mass."
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