Watering Los Angeles

Part of the Water: H2O = Life exhibition.

Owens "Lake," now an enormous salt flat
© Francke/Bilderberg/Aurora Photos

Watering Los Angeles

In the 1940s, thirsty Los Angeles diverted four major creeks that flowed into Mono Lake to fill the city's reservoirs. With little inflow, the lake level dropped rapidly and as the remaining water evaporated, the lake became even saltier. Brine shrimp and alkali fly populations plunged, nearly destroying the food source for millions of birds. Dangerous dust storms often rose from the newly exposed shoreline, polluting the air for miles around.

Drained Dry

What happens when a salt lake loses its water supply? Well, Owens "Lake" was once a vibrant salt lake just south of Mono Lake. In the 1920s, engineers diverted the river that fed the lake to provide water for Los Angeles. In just a few years, the lake dried into an enormous salt flat.

Island Invaders

Falling water levels in Mono Lake in the 1970s turned Negit Island, a large island near the northwestern shore, into a peninsula, exposing gull nests to hungry coyotes.

By the Numbers

Mono Lake dropped the height of a four-story building--almost 14 vertical meters (about 45 feet)--between 1941 and 1982.

Tufa Towers

Jagged towers at Mono Lake are made from tufa, a kind of limestone, and were once underwater. When calcium-rich spring water bubbles up from Mono Lake's bottom, it reacts with the carbonate-rich lake water to form calcium carbonate, or tufa. Tufa towers form around the springs and can grow as high as nine meters (about 30 feet) over the course of several decades. When Mono Lake's water level fell, the towers were exposed.