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.
When the wind blows across Owens Valley--and it almost always does--it can kick up dust so thick it reduces visibility to mere yards. Most motorists driving by along the east side of the Sierra Nevada miss the lake sprawling beside Highway 395 altogether. Hardly anyone stops to see birds. But when they do they find a sweet paradox. In the midst of the dust-- actually, because of it--shorebirds, diving birds, and water- fowl are thriving at Owens Lake.
A visit at dawn on an unusually clear spring morning is proof. A flock of American avocets is feeding in one of the lake's shallow pools, flaunting breeding plumage the color of toasted marshmallows. All in a row, they sway their slender upturned bills to and fro in search of insects. The flock segues from straight line to smooth circle and back again in a deli- cate ankle-deep dance. A trio of least sandpipers and a pair of snowy plovers tag onto the column, as a crescent moon slips behind the granite peaks of the Sierra.
Suddenly the sunrise serenity implodes in a roar of mo- tors shooting five-foot jets of water onto a wind-dried patch across the gravel levee that lines the avocets' pool. Beyond it are mudflats, salt flats, and gravel flats stretching to a cracked playa--nearly 100 square miles of lakebed crisscrossed by a grid of driveable dikes that hide hundreds of miles of pipe- line. Soon 18-wheeler dump trucks lumber past, bearing loads of gravel bound for other sections of the lake. Acrid diesel exhaust overwhelms the delicate scent of salt.
Trucks and pumps, avocets, and the city of Los Angeles, 233 miles away, are all part of a drama playing out on this vast des- ert stage in remote southeastern California. Owens Lake, the victim of one of the most audacious water grabs in the history of the American West, is now the site of one of its most innovative restorations. Dust, long the scourge of this barren basin, is propelling a $1.2 billion wetlands restoration funded by Los Angeles, a project where conservation and construction coexist. What was dry as bleached bone for nearly a century already has enough water to make it a critical stopover for tens of thousands of birds migrating on the inland Pacific Flyway. Under a proposal recently released by city officials, heavy equipment will further improve the habitat in an area twice the size of Manhattan. The odd result is an industrial zone where birders must wear hard hats to enjoy an internationally significant Important Bird Area.
"Where else could you find 18-wheelers creeping around avo- cet nests built in the middle of the road?" says Mike Prather, the de facto patron saint of Owens Lake. A bespectacled, bearded man with curly gray hair and a slight paunch, Prather, 67, is driving slowly along a newly built single-lane levee. He is so engrossed in pointing out the birdlife--"Harrier!" "Willet!"--he nearly steers into the briny drink. Stopping the car, he cocks his head to listen to a yellow-headed blackbird croak metallically from his perch on a nearby bulrush. A thatch of cattails shelters greater yellowlegs. Virginia rails are probably breeding here out of sight.
This lush niche with its computer-controlled pumps is a stark contrast to nearby stretches of empty lakebed. For Prath- er, who has lived in Owens Valley for 33 years, it's a true sign of progress. "Sometimes it seems slow, but I'm hopeful," he says. The tally from this year's spring bird count supports his optimism: 115,000 birds in a one-day count, 64,500 of them shorebirds representing 20 different species. The new record blows away the old one of 75,000, set last year. "You can begin to dream about what this place could be, and what it once was," says Prather, whose Facebook name is "Owens Lake."
Owens Lake looms between Mount Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48 states, and Death Valley, the lowest. For thousands of years avocets and snowy plovers nested here along with hundreds of gadwalls and long-billed curlews. In his 1917 surveys, field biologist Joseph Grinnell reported "lit- erally thousands of birds within sight of this one spot." He described large flocks of shorebirds in flight as "now silvery, now dark, against the gray-blue of the water."