April 26, 2012
Spending a week in Owens Valley is humbling. With Mt. Whitney looming to the west at 14,505 feet above sea level, and Death Valley off to the east at 282 feet below, it puts mere humans into perspective. I think of the late T’ang dynasty landscape paintings, which represent my environmental worldview. Lost among misty mountains and deep gorges are the tiny grass-thatched huts of hermits, all but hidden and insignificant to the whole.
Despite the immensity of its natural highs and lows, Owens Valley bears the impacts of blatant human activity. Starting in 1913, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting the lake’s feeder streams to the city 150 miles away. By 1924 this saline water body, which once covered nearly 200 square miles, was dry.
Today a slender chain of wetlands and squared-off sections of shallow flooding attract shorebirds and waterfowl, which breed and rest on their northward migrations. They are but a handful of the avian clouds that Owens Lake once drew but they are enough to bring back the birders. Conservationists are hopeful that this rejuvenation will continue, restoring the once blue lake and a critical ecosystem on the east side of the Sierra Nevada.