Owens Lake, it’s gone, essentially dried up. Los Angeles, 200 miles south, diverted the Owens River to slake its massive thirst. LA extended its reach 140 miles further. Diverting the tributaries feeding Mono Lake reduced the water level about 40 feet in 40 years and doubled the salinity. The diversion left the 70 square-mile body of water with maybe 20 feet of leeway before Mono Lake would go the way of Owens Lake.
A standard documentary reporting style summarizes more than the compelling nature of “The Mono Lake Story.” It embodies an activist level of concern that has saved this sanctuary for millions of birds, billions of brine shrimp, dozens of “fossilized springs” called tufas, and thousands of appreciative tourists.
Mountains of the Sierra Nevada rise to 12,000 feet as a backdrop. Streams flow once again, replenishing the expansive lake in this desert environment. Thank The Mono Lake Committee for two decades of scientific inquiry, campaigning, lawsuits, and solution development.
Now Los Angeles diverts only a quarter of Mono Lake’s tributary waters. Now LA engages in local water treatment and other practices that replace the siphoning of the Mono Lake ecosystem.
A right-sized awareness raiser (28 minutes), “The Mono Lake Story” is worth it just to pique interest in a curious natural environment. It goes one better, showing that regular people can band together to get a big government to do the right thing.
-- Q & A with Ryan Christensen & Jonah Matthewson, filmmakers of “The Mono Lake Story --
Chuck Jaffee: "The Mono Lake Story" demonstrates that regular people can make big, good things happen, but it takes a lot of time and commitment. What did you learn most about activism in making this film?
Ryan Christensen & Jonah Matthewson: It all starts with the ability for two sides of an issue to sit down together and work out solutions they can both agree on. You have to move beyond the heated rhetoric, uncompromising positions and demonization. It also takes a deep love of place, enough to drive the work through all the struggles and obstacles. Also, activism never really ends. It takes ongoing vigilance.
CJ: The story covers the fact of Mono Lake and the life and surrounding landscape of it. What intrigues you most about the Mono Lake ecosystem?
RC & JM: The incredible density of life Mono Lake nourishes. You realize you are just one living being sharing this special place with billions of others and that we are not so different—we live in this moment; breed and die… just like all life… [although] the flock of Phalaropes you are looking at could have come from as far as Argentina—non-stop. Also, you feel connection to an ancient past that endures and thrives.
CJ: Remind us why we care so much about billions of brine shrimp and bugs and a few species of birds.
RC & JM: Regional ecosystems do not function in isolation. An interdependent web of life connects the smallest organism to larger global processes. Billions of shrimp and flies support a healthy ecosystem at Mono Lake. Migratory birds depend on those shrimp and flies. Those birds travel to the other side of the world and contribute to ecosystems there. We already destroyed the rich ecosystem that Owens Lake supported, turned it into a toxic dust bowl. We will now never fully understand the ecosystem that Owens Lake supported. As humans, we have a unique ability to destroy ecosystems. We also have the ability to save them. At Mono Lake, we have chosen to save, rather than destroy.
CJ: The most salient feature of Mono Lake may be the tufa formations, especially neat to visit by kayak, I might add. What's your take on the attraction of the tufa?
RC & JM: Because tufa are so bizarre and unusual, they have drawn the attention of artists and photographers, which leads to greater public awareness of Mono Lake. The tufa have helped save Mono Lake. It was through creating the film that we fully understood that the tufa are really fossilized freshwater springs.
CJ: You said that ongoing vigilance in sustaining the Mono Lake Story is still necessary. What do we need to keep an eye on? What do we need to keep doing?
RC & JM: We need to make sure public and political will continues support, following the agreements. We also need to make sure that LA continues to utilize water conservation measures to ensure it future water security. And public land management agencies are having budgets severely cut, impacting their ability to effectively protect public land. We need to be ever diligent on issues such as the proposed closure of California’s State Parks.