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,
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
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
"Late in 1991, Las Vegas disclosed plans to
drill 146 wells some as far as 300 miles outside
"[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
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
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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