A very special and unique place.

It Ain't Over 'til The Fat Bird Sings
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

With the release of the court-mandated State Water Resources Control Board plan for Mono Lake, it is worth remembering how hopeless the quest seemed many years ago. It is important to give credit where it is due for the successes. And the implications beyond the local scene are worth noting.

But we also need to remind ourselves that "it ain't over till the fat bird sings."

Yee-haw!! I don't care what that sober-sided alter ego says, it's time to celebrate! Party! Sing songs and dance a jig! Long live Mono Lake!

For most of the last 12 years, I've had to tell visitors to Mono Lake that the future was very uncertain. When they returned another time, the lake could have been drastically changed: much less alive, possibly dead; much less beautiful, surrounded by more mud and alkali flats; with tufa towers stranded high and dry; and with periodic, unhealthy dust storms.

There was a possibility that the lake and all its life would be saved but it seemed like a poor bet. After all, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was not a small foe. The City of Los Angeles had been getting 17 percent of its water from the Mono Basin; they'd invested money in the stream diversion and delivery system, had (at that time) legal licenses to take the water and, most telling of all, the thirsty populations of L.A. and of the state of California were growing, growing, growing.

The forces formed up against DWP initially seemed very frail: a one-issue citizens group called the Mono Lake Committee, with legal aid from the National Audubon Society. References to "David and Goliath" have proven irresistible to journalists writing on this subject. If you'd been there the day little David faced the giant, who would you have bet on?

It was so difficult to be optimistic.

Citizens brought us to this point of hope for Mono Lake. Not government agencies (although in these latter stages they have certainly played important, critical roles). But the citizen effort pushed this issue into court, and eventually courts ruled that various laws were being violated. The water licenses had to be restructured to comply with the law. Agencies that now are fully involved in straightening out the mess were given a wake-up call: enforce those laws.

Of course, 15 years ago the responsible agencies did not have all the information that has since became available through research. Early on, individuals in government did speak out about the problems, and did proclaim the need to save the lake. But nothing got done and, it is safe to say, nothing would have really been done without the citizen groups' victories in court.

Caring individuals focused on the truth focused on fairness focused on education banding together for strength.

Thank you, Dave and Sally Gaines, Martha Davis, Sally Miller and Ilene Mandelbaum, attorneys Bruce Dodge and Patrick Flynn, and the hundreds of volunteers and tens of thousands of members and...

One of the greatest strengths of the Committee has been their emphasis on balance; their avoidance of extremism. They maintained that there is enough water to protect Mono Lake without harm to Los Angeles. They maintained that no other area needs to be "robbed" of water to accomplish their goal.

And they have not just proclaimed positions, but have gone and found the funds to build water recycling plants in L.A., and supported local research.

The MLC's founders were scientists. An emphasis on research and education has always given strength and integrity to this group. (A lot of PhDs and Master's degrees have come out of here in the last decade).

Thank you, researchers: Dave Gaines and Dave Herbst and Dave Shuford and Dave Winkler (so many Daves!) and Scott Stine and Peter Vorster and Petra Lenz and Gayle Dana and Bob Jellison and...

The Committee's positions did change some, through the years. Ironically, improved knowledge about Mono Lake forced the Committee, not to lower their estimates of necessary lake levels, but to actually raise them higher.

I won't lay out the details of the plan here, except to say that compromise prevails: the lake will rise less than half way back to what it was before the diversions began. Most, but not all, of the impacted resources will be restored and protected under this plan.

That's always assuming everything goes as planned. Victory cannot truly be proclaimed until this unique ecosystem is fully alive once again; until the critters are healthy and happily out of danger. It won't be over till the fat bird sings.

Implementation becomes the focus, now, at Mono Lake. And then there's the rest of the world. Have any lessons been learned?

"Late in 1991, Las Vegas disclosed plans to drill 146 wells — some as far as 300 miles outside the city.

"[Pat Mulroy, General Manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, says], "I like to think we've learned something from Los Angeles. We won't let Las Vegas grow unless we know where our water is coming from ahead of time. But we're in a desert here, and you can't support what'll soon be a million people with our current supplies of water.'" — Outside magazine, March 1993

Does that raise questions for you, too? Like, is the water they now have being used wisely — conserved, recycled, reclaimed? What will the lost groundwater mean for rural towns and for natural ecosystems? Is the desert environment a logical place for a fast-growing city? And what about assumptions that population growth is inevitable?

How wonderful it would be if water districts were restructured to give more thought to tomorrow, to long-term consequences beyond our own lifetimes and beyond immediate self-interests.

When the law determines that the public trust is being destroyed by some action, think how refreshing it would be if an agency apologized and quickly cleaned up their act. Declarations of legal war have been the norm, instead.

The lessons I see from this Mono Lake experience have to do with consideration for generations beyond our own, taking responsibility for our actions rather than dumping the consequences on others, and the need for a moral code that cherishes all of creation.

Most of all, I feel renewed hope. Protecting this lake shows our society's maturity. It shows that, no matter how desperate and impossible the goal (yes, even the goal of stabilizing our population), with knowledge and caring, there is hope.

Hooray! Can you believe it? Raise a toast! Kiss your dog! Kiss your kids! Kiss your spouse, even! Then come out to Mono Lake and stand in awe! Lift a prayer! It's fantastic!

But don't forget, in all this victorious euphoria, that "the proof is in the pudding," "seeing is believing," and it really won't be over until a couple million fat birds sing.

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