There was an amazing story on Mono Lake that scientists had discovered a bacteria that lives only in Mono Lake that can survive on eating arsenic — that’s right, rat poison.
While this might not sound like a big deal to the layman, this is a huge discovery within biology and astrobiology circles. This is the first time any organism has been found that can live on arsenic, and it opens up the idea that forms of life can live in environments both on earth and in space that we can’t even imagine.
How cool is it something like this came out of Mono Lake? Mono Lake is one of the most interesting lakes I’ve ever seen. It sits at 6,500 feet in the desert just east of the Sierra Nevada. It’s surrounded by the Sierra to the west and a series of volcanoes to the south called the Mono Craters. Dry hills to the north, and barren desert wasteland to the east. Clint Eastwood made High Plains Drifter along the shore of Mono Lake in 1971. Today, you couldn’t film a big movie like that. The area is protected.
Four small streams from the Sierra flow into the lake, and the water just stays there. It has nowhere to go. Mono Lake does not drain anywhere.
Beginning in the 1940s, the L.A. Department of Water and Power, which was already taking water from the Owens Valley to the south, began siphoning water out of the four streams. They built a giant tunnel underneath the Mono Craters, and the water flows through the tunnel into the Owens River, then into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The water goes more than 400 miles without a single pump. It’s all gravity fed. It was an engineering marvel.
And an environmental disaster. The lake shrank and the famous tufa towers of Mono Lake appeared. These are formations of calcium carbonate, created by the weird water chemistry of the lake. The lake shrank by one-third until a bunch of environmentalists won multiple court and state agency decisions against the L.A. Department of Water and Power. The case went all the way to the California Supreme Court. Now, the lake is maintained, by law, at a certain elevation. It will never be as big as it once was, but it won’t be allowed to die, either. The Forest Service manages it as a recreation area, and the DWP helped build a big, fancy visitor’s center by the highway.
If you ever go to Yosemite or Lake Tahoe, you really should take a trip to see Mono Lake. The tufa towers are amazing. And there is an old, dead volcano on the south shore you can hike to the top of. The volcano is made completely of black glass. Watch your step! And you can make a side trip to Bodie, one of the biggest ghost towns in the U.S. It’s only a few miles away in the hills north of the lake.
Mono Lake is often described as poisonous, but it is anything but. Sure, you will get deathly ill if you try to drink the alkali water (if you dip your hands into the water, it will feel very slimy, and then about an hour later if you don’t watch, you skin will start burning as if you’ve been using bleach without gloves), but that alkali water breeds trillions of brine shrimp and brine flies. Millions of birds — seagulls, grebes and phalaropes — stop at Mono Lake every year to feed on the shrimp and flies. You will never be surrounded by as much life. It is a riot of birds there. (But don’t go in the spring, because it is also a riot of no-see-ums).
If you really want to learn more about Mono Lake, check out MonoLake.org (and they’re pretty darned excited by Mono’s little bacteria!) If you want to know more about the LAWDP, pick up “Water and Power” on Amazon or at the library.