Monday, April 5, 2021

California-Nevada Desert Road Trip, Part 5 the End: March 2021

South Tufas at Mono Lake, CA

We made good time from Panaca to Mono Lake. There wasn't much to take up our time along the way. We did stop at the abandoned Coaldale Junction and also Nevada's Boundary Peak (tallest mountain in Nevada) viewpoint. Had my heart and stomach set on a wonderful dinner at the Mobile Station restaurant (not a joke), but found out that the restaurant/service station is only open seasonally. It would not open for another month. Fortunately, the grocery was open. We bought frozen chicken pot pies to microwave at the hotel, but discovered that these chicken pot pies are supposed to be baked in a conventional oven. Managed to microwave them but the crust became more of a dumpling instead of a flakey, browned crust. Another trip to the grocery for a cup of chili from their hot food counter. It was a better choice.

What remains of Coaldale Junction, Nevada
Boundary Peak, Nevada

Our first stop in California was at Mono Lake's South Tufas. There wasn't a breath of air and the reflections of snow topped mountains and tufa formations on the lake were even more beautiful.

Tufa towers are created when calcium-rich fresh water springs bubble up through the lake bottom and the calcium bonds to carbonates in the lake water to form a type of limestone called calcium carbonate. This is a gradual process that stops completely when the lake level drops.

In 1941 the lake level began to drop precipitously when the City of Los Angeles extended its aqueduct system into the Mono Basin to divert water from four of the six mountain streams that feed Mono Lake. With reduced freshwater inflow the lake lost more to evaporation than it gained from its inflow. "Mono Lake dropped nearly 50 vertical feet, shrank to half of its volume, and doubled in salinity over the next 40 years." Just like what has happened with the Salton Sea, miles of newly exposed lake bottom created unhealthy and unsightly dust storms in the windy Basin. 

Additionally, researchers found "if the lake continued to drop and increase in salinity, there would be a total ecosystem collapse. The decreasing lake level caused the islands where California Gulls nest to become connected to the mainland [which gave coyotes easy access to the nests]. The brine shrimp and alkali flies which millions of migratory birds depend on were also threatened, due to the increasing salinity."

In 1978 the Save Mono Lake movement began. In 1983 the California Supreme Court found that "the human and environmental uses of Mono Lake  . . deserve to be taken into account. Such uses should not be destroyed because the state mistakenly thought itself powerless to protect them."

In 1990 the court ordered that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's activities must comply with Fish and Game Code laws to protect fisheries in the creeks below the diversion points. In 1994, the State Water Resources Control Board negotiated an agreement between parties that the lake must be raised to an elevation of 6392 feet which was expected to take about 20 years. That elevation level is 25 feet lower than when the diversions began but 19 feet higher than it was in 1994. An informative online self-guided tour and map of the lake can be found here

Petrified Springs
When the lake level drops and exposes the tufa towers, the fresh water springs no longer percolate up through or around the towers leaving a petrified spring and stranded tufa towers.





The next morning we got up at sunrise when it was 23℉ and went back for more photos. The moon had yet to set.



The stranded tufa towers and much of the vegetation reminds me of what a coral reef looks like. Some of these bushes look like they could be fan corals.



After packing up, we stopped at the National Park visitor center overlook for a last look at the quiet serenity of Mono Lake. 



One sign pointed out that standing 13,000 years ago at the spot that I took this photo I would have been nearly 200 feet under Ice Age Mono Lake.

Ten days away from home to photograph geologic formations, animals, and learn about water-rights fights. I almost feel like our lives are gaining some normalcy. It was a great getaway. Next stop: Home.

We were gone just 10 days, but Spring was definitely in full swing. The wisteria was budding out and flowers were blooming everywhere at home.

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