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Ouzel Omens: Stream Restoration Efforts
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

"Do you believe in signs?"

The other man looked at Scott English (generally a sober, rational, scientific sort of guy) as though he had flipped his lid. "'Signs'?"

The two men were working recently along Lee Vining Creek, selecting test sites for this summer's revegetation efforts. It is all part of the court-mandated work to restore the creek to its "pre-diversion" conditions. Streams flowing to Mono Lake were never supposed to be totally dried up by the diversions to Los Angeles, according to Fish & Game law. So now the hard work is beginning to try to reestablish conditions in the creek and along its banks to restore high quality fish habitat.

Scott and his co-worker had been trying to decide if a certain site was suitable for planting, when Scott received the "sign." An ouzel landed in the middle of that part of the stream. A water ouzel. The first one they had seen along lower Lee Vining Creek. Perhaps a "sign" that the study plot there was well chosen.

The ouzel was definitely a sign of change, anyway. Lee Vining Creek, along with Parker, Walker and lower Rush Creeks, was dead-dry most of the last 50 years. Ouzels live along water — in the water, much of the time. They are plump, gray little birds that some people call "Dippers" because they constantly bob their tails up and down, whether standing still or walking. They can "fly" submerged, searching for water insects to eat.

John Muir called the ouzel "the mountain streams' own darling, the hummingbird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings." Muir particularly loved their songs.

I don't know if Scott English had Muir's writing in mind when he saw that ouzel in Lee Vining Creek. But I do know that Scott has been noting each return of a water-loving creature to that area. There's a kingfisher hanging out near the county road crossing now. And a great blue heron. Fish-eaters.

In the stream itself, you can discover fish food. Caddis fly larvae and stone fly larvae are back among the rocks. Trout love them. Where vegetation has returned to the shore, this summer you should be able to find the skeletal shells of the larvae left behind on stems when the larvae emerge as flying adults.

Some plants have begun to grow again along the channel. Tiny little cottonwood trees are sprouting here and there. Last spring, an amazing display of blue lupine flowers appeared near the Lee Vining Creek crossing of the county road. The seeds must have been waiting there in the soil for years.

Water brings the return of life.

But despite these hopeful signs, the flowing water may not, in itself, restore the old conditions to the creek channel. Unfortunately, after all the streamside vegetation had been long dead, a couple times over the years, high-water floods scoured the unstabilized channel, altering its bed and its very location.

A healthy stream needs a variety of riffles and deep pools, quiet and swift water, gravels for spawning and places for trout to escape and hide. And it needs banks stabilized by grasses, shrubs and trees.

Cottonwoods, aspens, and willows will have other benefits, of course. They will shade the stream in places. They will die, over time, their branches and trunks falling into the stream, causing new pools to form behind them and providing new places for trout to hide. And the trees will become habitat for land dwellers. Places for kingfishers and bald eagles to perch. Nesting sites. Homes for insects and reptiles and mammals.

The green strip of riparian vegetation that lines water courses is also attractive to human mammals. As the creeks recover, they will once again be wonderful places to hike, picnic, and yes, even to fish. The creek corridor will be an oasis in the arid Mono Basin.

Scott English is part of the "ground crew" that will help this to happen in our lifetimes. His work reminds me of a computer game I recently bought. It's one of those mazes with 20 levels of hazards and rewards. A horribly addictive game. I love the problem-solving, but imagine the horror of reaching level 19, surviving all those hazards, and then making one deadly mistake. Do I have to start all over again from Level 1, go all the way through the entire game once more in order to make new progress toward that ultimate Crown of Kroz?

No, thank goodness. Not if I use the "restore" function. If I am wise, I'll have taken steps so the computer memory starts me off again at a higher level. By restoring to that point I can shortcut the long, long process of beginning over from scratch.

The court has mandated that the once-dry creeks flowing to Mono Lake be restored. And we aren't going to have to wait for 40 or 60 or 100 years to see if it can ever successfully be done. Efforts are beginning now to actively restore the streams.

The ouzel and the other water creatures show that the process is underway. Stream-channel work and planting of riparian vegetation will speed things along.

The next few years should bring wonderful changes to the streams flowing into Mono Lake. The ouzels are back. You're welcome too.

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