A California Lake Becomes a Stopover Spot Again
Two hundred miles north of Los Angeles, windswept Owens Lake was the victim of one of the most audacious water grabs in the history of the American West. Now it is the site of one of its most innovative restorations--resurrecting a critical pit stop for migrating birds.
Wildlife was thriving in the 1860s, when the discovery of silver in the mountains east of the lake created the boomtowns of Swansea and Keeler. The raw ore was smelted into ingots shipped across the lake in propeller-driven steamboats. From there the precious metal was hauled by wagon to the Southern California coast to help build the pueblo of Los Angeles. For the farmers who followed the miners into Owens Valley in the late 1800s, making a living was always a hard scrabble. It became all but impossible after the early 1900s, when Los Angeles of- ficials set their sights on eastern Sierra runoff as a water supply that would allow their young city to grow. William Mulholland, superintendent of the newly created Department of Water and Power, began acquiring water rights in the valley using under- handed tactics that included a city official posing as a rancher. Once secured, he engineered a 200-mile gravity-flow aqueduct and, in 1913, turned the spigot that diverted the Owens River and all the other streams feeding the lake to Los Angeles. "There it is," Mulholland declared. "Take it." The scandal was memori- alized in Chinatown, Roman Polanski's 1974 movie. For rural water users, Owens Valley became a symbol of exploitation by a ruthless and deceptive me- tropolis. The once 200-square-mile lake shrank steadily, leaving in its wake a ghostly white al- kali void. By 1927 Owens Lake was a barren expanse bigger than Washington, D.C.
Prather and his wife, Nancy, passed through in 1972--in a VW bus that had a McGovern sticker affixed to its bumper--en route to jobs teaching kindergarten through sixth grade at a two-room school in Death Val- ley. They arrived at midnight in 92-degree heat to find their linoleum-floored apartment with a disconnected cooler. "You do a lot of stuff in your mid-twenties," Prather says. But jumping into the frying pan of Death Valley launched his career as an environmental educator. Once a month students, their families, and assorted neighbors piled into the school bus, which Prather drove, for treks up mountain peaks and full-moon walks across the sand.
Death Valley also introduced Prather to some of the world's best birders. Like bees to honey, the birders came in droves to see vagrants straying from their migration courses to land, exhausted and thirsty, on Death Valley National Park's Furnace Creek golf course. "I learned most of my eastern warblers at Furnace Creek Ranch," Prather says. He was never so batty about birds to chase them around the world, but he and Nancy did name their daughters Robin and Phoebe.
When the family moved to Lone Pine, where Prather helped found the Eastern Sierra Chapter of Audubon, Owens Lake was not among the places he looked for birds. All the water was long gone to Los Angeles. But a corner of the lake fell into the Christmas Bird Count circle, so in 1985 Prather and his fellow birders dutifully surveyed it. The tally results astonished them. Sandpipers and other migrants flying south were lingering in a chain of small wetlands on the fringes of the lake. "It was like this lake refused to die," he says, still amazed.
Finding migrant birds at Owens Lake sparked a passion in Prather to preserve the remain- ing habitat and restore as much more as pos- sible. He organized birding trips, gave lectures, taught Birding 101 at a community college, and nominated the lake as an Important Bird Area. White-faced ibis and long-billed dowitchers are at Owens Lake, Prather would tell anyone who would listen. He de- scribed winter flocks of snow geese, the return of cinnamon teals, and snowy plovers nesting on the white salt flats, where they are well camouflaged from predators.
A teacher by nature and profession, Prather spoke fervently about the potential for improving Owens Lake for birds from the seeds of habitat that had somehow survived. He was, in his quiet way, building an Owens Lake constituency from the mud-cracked lakebed up.
For many years he was a lone voice, says Andrea Jones, who directs Audubon Califor- nia's Important Bird Areas program. "It was just Mike out there jumping up and down." By the time they met in 2006, Prather was armed with three-ring binders loaded with articles, photos, data, and testimony from his many public state- ments. "I gave her both barrels," he says with a chuckle. Jones also remembers the meeting: "He accosted me with those huge binders." Audubon California immediately committed staff time and resources to Owens Lake.
The excitement over birds parallels a more contentious process that has been playing out in legal offices and courtrooms since the 1980s. That fight is about dust. Winds sweeping down the 11,000-foot Sierra escarpment have always blasted across Owens Valley, but when they blew over the newly drained lakebed they stirred up a toxic mix of arsenic, cadmium, and other carcinogens along with the salts and minerals left be- hind when the water went south. These tiny particles--more than 50,000 would fit in the period at the end of this sentence-- penetrate deep into the lungs, causing damage to respiratory sys- tems that can trigger asthma, emphysema, and even heart attacks.
It is the size of the particles and their immense quantity that make them so dangerous, says Ted Schade, who works for the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District based in Bishop, 60 miles north of the lake. "You don't want to breathe this stuff," he says. "It can kill you." Owens Lake, which hadn't gone dry in at least 5,000 years, if ever, became the single largest source of air pollution in the nation. A dust storm in 2000 exceeded federal air standards by more than 100 times, Schade says.