This was never supposed to happen.

Detail of the Main Plaza StructureSo how do you go from dealing with a public utility that has to be dragged kicking and screaming through decades of litigation just to get it to fix a public health disaster it inadvertently created to having that same utility embrace and manage an elaborate set of wildlife and bird habitats, complete with public access to invite people into this strange but beautiful place? You do it with data, you do it with heart, and you do it with years of dogged persistence.

That somewhat oversimplifies the process by which we arrive today (tomorrow, technically, for the public dedication), at the opening of the Owens Trails at Owens Lake in the Eastern Sierra, but the transformation has been dramatic and quite possibly unprecedented. Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, who was never legally required to do anything but mitigate blowing dust at Owens Lake, is well into construction of seven different habitats or “guilds” on and around the lake, in cooperation with Audubon California, to meet the migratory needs of the hundreds of thousands of birds who use Owens Lake as a critical stopover on the Pacific Flyway. And they’ve included beautifully designed public access areas and trails so that the public can come to the lake to see the extraordinary place it is.

This is a Big Deal. One that’s almost impossible to overstate.

I’ll get into what’s happening now, but first, a little history (because context is important).

The lake itself has been transformed and exploited for over a century. In the late 1800s, it supported huge steam-powered barges carrying ore and other materials being mined from the Inyo Mountains that flank its eastern shore. Just before the turn of the century, lake levels had dropped too low to allow the steamers to cross—this was partially a result of local farmers drawing water from the Owens River via irrigation canals they dug (many people have dipped their straws into the Owens River for many years, for many purposes).

Plaza at public entrance to Owens Trails

Plaza at public entrance to Owens Trails

And then most notoriously, along came William Mullholland and his Los Angeles Aqueduct. Completed in 1913, it diverted the entirety of the Owens River north of Independence into the aqueduct—it made possible the city of Los Angeles that exists today, but almost (the “almost” is important) killed Owens Lake, a terminal lake at the southern end of the Owens River, which had mostly dried up by 1926. Once the lakebed was exposed, it was exploited still more by companies who mined the lake itself for its precious minerals. The U.S. Borax/Rio Tinto surface mining of the mineral trona continues today, in fact.

The result of the lake’s deterioration was chronic and toxic blowing dust, which was the worst source of air pollution in the entire United States and a serious threat to public health. Litigation commenced in the 1970s to force LADWP to mitigate the blowing dust, and over the years, beginning in 2001, various mitigation measures were put in place at the lake—some more successful than others (blowing dust has now been reduced by 95%, which is a good thing, and means the mitigation measures have paid off). In addition to the mitigation efforts, something else significant happened—in 2006, LADWP, under court order, began sending water back down the lower Owens River below the aqueduct for the first time since its construction. The result of those two things meant that there was finally water—carefully controlled and gridded off—on the lake for the first time in almost a century.

Snowy Plover, a Very Important Bird at Owens Lake

Snowy Plover, a Very Important Bird at Owens Lake

Now, Owens Lake was never completely dry. It is ringed with a series of springs and seeps along its western shore which kept an active marsh and grassland area alive on the lake. With the addition of the water on the lake itself, limited though it was, the birds came back. And they came back in massive numbers, and did so with a rapidity that surprised just about everyone. But it was one key species that really got everyone’s attention—the tiny snowy plover. A state species of special concern because of rapid habitat loss, it was this small shorebird’s presence at the lake that got relevant parties to really take a closer look at what was happening with bird life on the lake. In a few short years, Eastern Sierra Audubon, a new chapter of Audubon California, was founded, and the State Lands Commission and Department of Fish & Wildlife, among others, were actively documenting and lobbying for the bird life on the lake.

National Audubon subsequently designated the Owens Lake an Important Bird Area (IBA) on the Pacific Flyway (a critical migratory route); a group of local stakeholders and activists in 2007 formed what would become known as the Master Plan working group, and they succeeded in bringing LADWP to the table to begin work on preserving this accidentally resurrected habitat.

Keep in mind, LADWP’s responsibilities to the Owens Valley were never supposed to include habitat management. Even getting this far was significant. Michael Prather, a local conservationist and co-founder of the Eastern Sierra Audubon chapter and who has been one of the lake’s most important advocates, recalls that “We discussed two main areas of interest—saving water and protecting habitat. DWP told us that if we could save water by creating certain habitats, then they would be able to convince their decision makers to support that.”

Prather continued: “Around 2012–2013, LADWP announced that due to time obligations for its dust control, it needed to move more quickly or suffer penalties from GBUAPCD (the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, who monitors pollution levels at the lake) and would proceed alone. DWP assured the stakeholders that what was in the draft Master Plan would be incorporated into what they now call the Master Project. The advisory committee and the work groups would still meet and advise the DWP in its work.”

In 2013, however, LADWP ended up back in litigation with Great Basin and other parties. This skirmish took more than a year to resolve, which resulted in a lengthy stretch of radio silence that caused a lot of people (including yours truly) to worry that they’d abandoned their commitment to the lake. Behind the scenes, they were still working with Audubon, and, Prather says, once a settlement was reached in the litigation, the Master Project and stakeholder participation resumed. (Whew!)

LADWP released its outline of the Master Project in spring 2013 (which you may have seen in some of my older posts on this blog), announcing their commitment to the construction and management of the seven habitat guilds, as well as public access areas to allow people to enjoy the impressive bird life at the lake. Over the next three years, the Los Angeles-based firm NUVIS Landscape Architecture was awarded the bid to design and build, along with LADWP, the public access areas at the lake. Their design is beautiful, and in perfect harmony with its environment. Construction commenced and was completed on schedule, and the area will have its grand opening tomorrow, April 29, 2016.

NUVIS Schematic of the main plaza (drawing by NUVIS Landscape Architecture)

NUVIS Schematic of the main plaza (drawing by NUVIS Landscape Architecture)

This is a compromise, but it’s a good compromise that will be very good for wildlife. Those who argue that LADWP should just dismantle the aqueduct and refill the entire lake will not see that happen, at least not in this lifetime. We’d all love to see the lake restored, but Los Angeles not only will not, but really cannot, abandon its water supply. And there are more complicated issues in addition. Much of the lakebed is considered a disturbed landscape—it is unrestorable. Soil quality is so poor that no vegetation will grow in many places in and around the lake (LADWP has had success with growing native saltgrass in several places as part of their mitigation efforts, but that’s been hit or miss). The mining interests, like it or not (I happen to NOT like it), hold legal contracts that allow them to continue their removal of minerals for years into the future. The lake is a big, beautiful mess, and multiple entities both public and private will fight tooth and nail to maintain their hold on the lake—and for now this compromise is the best solution for all parties (and honestly FAR more than I ever expected wildlife would get from LADWP).

I’ll repeat this part: this was never supposed to happen, and it’s a BIG DEAL. This, the habitat creation and management. This, the welcoming of the public to the lake. This is a huge victory for the groups in the Owens Valley who fought so tirelessly to make this happen. That’s the story so many in the media have completely missed in their obligatory coverage of the Owens Trails, and it’s a truly important story.

Informational Kiosk at Owens Trails Plaza

Informational Kiosk at Owens Trails Plaza

“I am elated!” Prather told me. “I never dreamed that we would ever have gotten this far. For so many years I worried about how we would protect the birds that had returned. How could we protect the heritage wildlife population that was back again?”

LADWP, who fought long and hard to avoid its obligation to mitigate dust at the lake for so many years, has undergone a pretty radical change in corporate culture. The entity who for years reminded the interest groups that habitat was not their responsibility now employs a staff of biologists who monitor wildlife on all LADWP land in the valley, and not just at the lake. The entity who has so often refused to do anything without a court order and under threat of severe financial penalties has worked with Audubon and established critical habitats for migrating birds. LADWP is reviled in the Owens Valley, and for good reason. But just this once, they deserve a pat on the back. They have done a very good thing for the Owens Valley. And the groups who have worked so hard to make this happen should feel immense pride. Thank you for this tireless, impassioned work you have done—for you have achieved the impossible.

My own personal note: I am amazed and so thrilled with what’s happening at the lake right now. Having spent the last six-plus years of my life documenting the birds that returned to Owens Lake, this feels very personal to me (in the best way). I also want to give a huge thank-you to Mike Prather, who was gracious enough to be interviewed for this piece. When I first began poking around the valley and bugging people about my lake project, every single person told me “You need to talk to Mike Prather!” They were right. Nobody knows the lake better or gives more of his time to groups all over the state to educate them about the lake than he does, and I am just one of so many who have been the recipient of his generosity with his time and knowledge. His help has been invaluable, and he has become a valued friend. The birds thank you, too, Mike!

So what does spring migration look like at Owens Lake? BIRDS EVERYWHERE!

I’m looking forward to telling you more later this week about the official opening of the Owens Trails installation at the lake, but in the meantime I thought I’d share some images from this year’s spring migration.  Every species has a different migration pattern–some make stunningly long journeys, others less so; it’s the range of bird life on the lake in spring that’s truly impressive, however.  This is just a small sampling of the hundreds of species who use the lake as a migratory stopover.

Brine Flies - The Lake's Primary Food Source

Brine Flies – The Lake’s Primary Food Source

California Gull Feeding on Brine Flies

California Gull Feeding on Brine Flies

A Group of Coots (sometimes called Mudhens)

A Group of Coots (sometimes called Mudhens)

American Avocets and Black-Necked Stilt

American Avocets and Black-Necked Stilt

Resting Avocets

Resting Avocets

Avocet in Flight

Avocet in Flight

Avocets Embody Elegance and Precision in Flight

Avocets Embody Elegance and Precision in Flight

Snowy Plover, Key Species at the Lake

Snowy Plover, Key Species at the Lake

Sleepy Western Sandpipers

Sleepy Western Sandpipers

Eared Grebe in Breeding Plumage

Eared Grebe in Breeding Plumage

Eared Grebes Dancing Across the Water

Eared Grebes Dancing Across the Water

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

Whimbrel (in the Curlew Family)

Whimbrel (in the Curlew Family)

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

California Gulls in Flight

California Gulls in Flight

Owens Lake Project on Exhibit through 2017

If you didn’t have a chance to see the Owens Lake Project exhibit at G2 Gallery in Venice, California or again at the Interagency Visitors’ Center in Lone Pine last year, it’s now up for a third time!  Life on the Lake Exhibition

The Eastern California Museum in Independence (very much worth a visit whenever you’re in the area) opened a year-long showing of the project last month, paired with some historical photos of the lake.  The juxtaposition of old and new photos is quite striking (and kudos to Jon Klusmire at the museum for this perfect and fascinating approach).  The images from the first phase of the project are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

I’m delighted to see the project images on display again, because it’s so important to show people how much life exists on the lake (and on that note–look for a blog post in a couple of days about a VERY significant development on the lake).

 

A second exhibition of the Owens Lake Project in 2015!

First, a HUGE thank you to those of you who donated to the GoFundMe fundraiser–most of my data was recovered, and the exhibit this summer at the G2 Gallery went on with no problems or delays.  I could not have done this without your help, and I am both grateful and humbled.  Those of you who donated at the level to receive a complimentary print from me can expect them within the next week (my techno-nightmares have continued, unfortunately–my PC desktop went belly-up about 10 days ago, which slightly delayed my ability to print those images; it’s been an interesting year, to say the least!).

For those of you who were unable to see the exhibit in Los Angeles, you’ll have another opportunity to view it this spring, when I take the project “home” to the Owens Valley.  I’m very excited to announce that Friends of the Inyo, an excellent stewardship and conservation group in the Eastern Sierra, is sponsoring a two-month showing of the exhibit during March and April 2015 as part of their first annual Owens Lake Bird Festival.  You can read more info on that here.

The exact opening and closing dates have not yet been determined, but the exhibit will run for approximately two months, with the closing reception set for April 25 in Lone Pine.  The exhibit will be held at a venue I love and have spent many hours at–the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center, a beautiful facility just north of the Owens Lake.  I’m SO excited about the second showing of the project, and especially excited about the location for the exhibit.  When the opening/closing dates have been confirmed, I’ll update here with more information, and I hope to see some of you there.

There have been some interesting new developments with the LADWP’s obligations on dust control at the lake, but that deserves a post of its own.  Once I’ve digested all the details, I’ll devote a new post to it in the next few days.  Stay tuned!

Eastern Sierra Crest Reflected in Owens Lake

Eastern Sierra Crest Reflected in Owens Lake

 

I need your help!

The link is here.

After four years of work on my documentary photography project on The Owens Lake Project, I’m finally on the verge of showing it to the public in the form of an exhibit.  Beginning June 10, renowned environmental photography gallery, G2 Gallery – Second Chance: The Owens Lake Project in Venice, California, will be showing my Owens Lake Project in their beautiful exhibition space.

Mounting an exhibit is always an expensive affair, and this one will require between $2,000 and $3,000 to print and frame the prints for exhibit.  This project has always been a labor of love, with all of the associated expenses up to this point coming out of my own pocket. If you read the “about” page for the project, you’ll understand why I consider this project so timely and important.  We’re in the middle of a three-year drought in California, and water issues are more important than ever.  Most of the people who live in Los Angeles are completely unfamiliar with the Owens Lake and its connection to their water, and have no idea of the critical wildlife habitat that exists at the lake and which needs protection and preservation.  My hope has always been to educate people on what the lake is really like, and why it is so important that we continue restoration efforts there.  This exhibit will go a long way in doing just that.

Our partner for the exhibit is Audubon California, who will receive a portion of sales during the exhibit, and once the exhbit has ended (including any subsequent showings in other locations), the collection of images will be donated to the Eastern California Museum in Independence, California.

This weekend, however, a major complication arose.  After returning home from a four-day hike of the Owens Lake perimeter to conclude my photographic work for the exhibit, I discovered that my external storage drive that contains all my image files–including several destined for the exhibit–had died, and taken all those images with it.

I’m now faced with the added expense of over $1,200 (at least) to have the data recovered from the hard drive, and it’s an expense that cannot be put off due to my need to recover images for the exhibit.  This is why I need your help–I need to raise funds to recover my images and to cover a portion of the printing/framing expenses for the exhibit.  Any amount you can donate will help, and be GREATLY appreciated.  As an incentive, those who donate $100 or more will get their choice of any of my images (excluding panoramic images), matted to 11″x14″ and ready for framing.  You can check out my images on my website at Robin Black Photography or Robin’s Flickr photostream, and choose whichever one you like best!

I am so very grateful for your help, and donations in any amount are appreciated!

Hidden in plain sight: Owens Lake is a mecca for birds and wildlife

Eastern Sierra Crest Reflected in Owens Lake

Eastern Sierra Crest Reflected in Owens Lake

No, really–it is.  Most who have just a passing familiarity with the lake think of it as a bone-dry lakebed in the Eastern Sierra, devoid of life and water, and little more than a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  Recent photography projects on the lake don’t help much in that regard, such as David Maisel’s Lake Project–which is a stunningly beautiful photography series on the lake, but which leaves the viewer with the wrong impression that the lake is lifeless and beyond redemption.

In fact, Owens Lake has never been entirely dry.  Natural springs and seeps ring its western shore, and multiple aquifers lie just beneath the lakebed’s surface.  Those year-round water sources, along with the handful of shallowly flooded grids that LA’s Water and Power has constructed to help with dust mitigation, attract hundreds of thousands of birds every year along the Pacific Flyway.

How important is Owens Lake as bird habitat?  And what’s a “flyway?”

Burrowing Owl at Owens Lake

Burrowing Owl at Owens Lake

Important enough that the National Audubon Society has designated Owens Lake as an IBA–Important Bird Area, an area recognized as being globally important habitat for the conservation of bird populations.  Part of what makes the habitat there so critical is its location along the Pacific Flyway, one of four bird “super highways” that stretch north to south in the Americas.  Birds–especially waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds–use the lake as a stopover in spring and fall as they migrate.  Several species of bird also use the lake as a breeding ground, including the critically threatened Snowy Plover.

And as with any location that brings in huge numbers of birds, there’s an ecological ripple effect–the habitat on and around the lake also supports other birds and wildlife as well.  You’ll find birds of prey including several species of raptor and owl–including this burrowing owl I photographed near one of the springs–reptiles, and mammals including the elusive desert kit fox and kangaroo rat.  The lake is alive with wildlife year round, and that is what needs more awareness and education–you cannot protect what you’re not aware of, and one of my goals in telling this story is to familiarize people with what a thriving environment Owens Lake is for birds and wildlife.

One of the things I hope to accomplish while spending the better part of a week at the lake this month at the height of spring migration is photographing some of the diverse life there–and I’m hoping that once people see that diversity at Owens Lake, they’ll become more invested in helping protect and preserve it.

Things have been quiet here for a while–here’s why.

Long time, no see–but let me assure you that the Owens Lake Project isn’t just still alive, things are about to get VERY busy around here (and around the lake).

First, a little background to catch you up on the details.

Just as I was ramping up work on my project a couple of years ago, everything hit a state of suspended animation.  LADWP, along with several groups working to restore Owens Lake, was part of an ongoing working group loosely known as the Owens Lake Master Plan Committee.  That group met regularly to discuss, negotiate and occasionally battle over plans to include more habitat restoration and maintenance along with the dust control on the lake that Los Angeles Water and Power was obligated by court order to do.  And then abruptly and unexpectedly, LADWP withdrew from work with the committee more than two years ago.  All work on the proposed Owens Lake Plan ceased.  Ground to a halt.  And this was a very worrisome development for all who care about the lake, and the birds and wildlife who call it home.

I figured things couldn’t stay quiet forever, so I closely followed any news I could find coming out of LADWP or the Owens Valley, usually by way of updates from the Owens Valley Committee.  But as the months dragged by with LADWP still silent, I began to worry.  Were they really walking away from all the hard work they’d done with the committee, and planning to cease any further restoration work?  Things were beginning to look grim.

And then suddenly, much to everyone’s surprise, LADWP last April announced their proposed Owens Lake Master Project.  They’d renamed the old draft Master Plan, but retained a great deal of what was being asked for by the committee.  It is not without controversy–some of the groups involved with the committee have rejected the proposed Master Project, as they feel it doesn’t go as far as they’d like, and that it will release LADWP from some of their responsibilities on the lakebed.  But most of the groups, including Eastern Sierra Audubon, support the proposed Master Project–and assuming the various environmental impact reports and proposed legal obligations on LADWP meet certain standards, this extensive project may become reality sooner than later.

From my own perspective–and I think this is similar to the perspective of the groups who are supportive of the Master Project–this is a very, very good thing.  Going forward with it would eliminate who knows how many more years of negotiations and litigation and result in serious restoration and remediation of significant portions of the lakebed.  It will also, for the first time ever, offer park-like locations and viewing platforms around the lake to bring the public to Owens Lake at long last.  Angelinos, you, more than anyone else, need to add this to your must-see lists.  Come visit this beautiful valley that provides the clean Sierra water that comes out of your tap daily.  You will not be sorry you did.

Owens Lake Map with Perimeter Route

Owens Lake Map with Perimeter Route

The Project is not perfect, but it’s a LOT, and it’s a great start.  I encourage you to read the report–the overview, linked here, is relatively short and accompanied by extensive graphics showing just what the Master Project would do for the lake.

It’s easy to see LADWP as the villain in this story; indeed, I’m often torn on what my own opinion is of the department.  They’ve been greedy, they’ve been historically inconsiderate of the valley (and those who live there) from which they take their water, they’ve been short-sighted and indescribably stubborn in litigation over the lake and the aqueduct.  But looking back over the last decade, their movement toward a willingness to incorporate habitat into their dust control work has been steady–and impressive.  The corporate culture of the department has shifted, and it shows in the increase in the number of biologists and other specialists they employ on site at the lake.  They’re showing a measurable commitment to the environment there, even if it’s not as expansive a commitment as some would like.  I think it would be a mistake not to recognize this, applaud it, and continue to work with them to ensure this work becomes permanent, and even expands.  They’re not the hero of this story–yet–but they are showing an effort at good work on Owens Lake.

So, where does that leave this project?  At warp speed, approximately, which I embrace with great excitement.  I’ll be posting updates on the lake regularly over the coming months, and even better–I’m thrilled to announce that G2 Gallery in Venice, California, along with partner Audubon California, will be exhibiting my work on the project this summer, from June 10 to July 27. This phase of the project will concentrate on bird and wildlife activity on and around the lake, showing how well those populations have adapted to work already done on the lake, and why further restoration of the habitat is so important.

In preparation for that exhibit, I’ll be spending considerable time at the lake for the next couple of months to document spring migration.  That work will include a more than 45-mile perimeter hike of the Owens Lake shoreline, which will allow me to intensively document activity on the lake both day and night.  There’s no record of anyone having done this before, so I’m very excited to undertake this project.

Things are just getting interesting–so check back frequently!  If you want to get first word of new developments on the project–especially my live updates from the lake during the perimeter hike!–consider following me here on Facebook, or Twitter.

Exploitation.

Even before it was drained mostly dry, the Owens Lake was exploited by entities both public and private for the riches it had to give up, and for its ability to transport materials mined from the Inyo Mountains that rise from its eastern shore.  As this project goes forward, I’ll look at the ways the lake has been used–and as a result almost ruined.  These photos give just a taste of what that exploitation has wrought.  Read more about the project here.

An abandoned talc mill in Keeler was onced used to process the mineral mined from the mountains to the east.

When the lake dried up and companies abandoned their operations there, towns like Keeler began to die. Only a few residents remain in this almost-ghost town.

The old Pittsburgh Plate Glass facility, which mined minerals from the lake, has been abandoned for decades, slowly decaying on the lake's western shore.

Much of the land surrounding the lake is owned by the BLM, which allows ranchers to graze their cattle at the lake. Cattle chutes dot the landscape surrounding the lake's western and northern shores.

The lakebed itself is a checkerboard of bubblers and grids, all part of LADWP's efforts to control blowing dust.

The grids on the lakebed are controlled by an elaborate network of pipes and pumping stations.

And lest one drop too many make its way from the river to the lake, LADWP uses a pumping station at the river's end to pull "excess" water back into the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Look closer.

The Owens Lake at a distance–the only way most people ever see the lake–appears to be a wasteland, a dead and dusty plateau.  But even before restoration efforts began, the lake supported life at its fringes around the few areas still fed by springs and artesian wells.  And now that the LADWP has begun rewatering the lower Owens River and expanding shallow flooding in the lakebed, life has rushed back in with astonishing speed, giving just a hint of what the lake could look like with further restoration and reminding us all what was lost when the Owens was drained dry.  Read more about my project here.

Portions of the lake have been separated into grids, several of which have carefully maintained shallow flooding and are planted to native saltgrass.

The lake's most populous bird species is the California Gull, present year-round at the lake but most numerous in spring and fall.

Several species including the American White Pelican stop at the Owens Lake as part of their annual migration.

The American Avocet and Least Sandpiper are found in significant numbers on the lake.

Both the Least Sandpiper and the Western Sandpiper use the Owens Lake as a stopover on their way to breeding grounds in the north.

The breeding plumage of the American Avocet is intensely striking.

A pair of American Avocets mate in one of the shallowly flooded grids in the Owens Lake.

Brine flies breed in vast numbers along the edges of the highly alkaline water on Owens Lake, and serve as a major food source for several species of bird.

A pair of Avocets cross bills as part of their post-mating ritual.

An American Avocet feeds on plentiful brine flies on the Owens Lake.

The Long-Billed Dowitcher is another migratory species that frequents the lake on its journey.

Long-Billed Dowitchers take off from water's edge.

The Wilson's Phalarope is another shorebird seen at the lake.

A Wilson's Phalarope shows his territorial side.

Great Egrets are one of several species of wading birds found on Owens Lake.

A cousin to the American Avocet, Black-Necked Stilts also frequent the lake.

The Willet, a large shorebird, also frequents the lake.

One of the Willet's distinctive markings is the dramatic black and white pattern on its wings.

The White-Faced Ibis is another wading species found at the lake.

As with several other species, the White-Faced Ibis displays brighter plumage during breeding season.

The lake also supports many species of bird common to marshes and grassy fields, such as the Red-Winged Blackbird . . .

. . . and the equally colorful Yellow-Headed Blackbird.

A Red-Winged Blackbird and Yellow-Headed Blackbird face off in the marsh at Dirty Socks hot springs on the south end of the lake.

Long-Billed Dowitchers and ducks (Cinnamon Teal, Green-Winged Teal and Blue-Winged Teal) feast on brine flies in the marsh at Dirty Socks.

Mike Prather of Eastern Sierra Audubon leads the activities at the annual bird count at the lake. This year more than 39,000 birds spanning 64 species were observed on the lake on a single day.

These photos show bird species that are at the lake early in the breeding season, and the variety of life there continues to increase as spring progresses.

This is where it begins.

At the southern end of the Long Valley, just below Mono Lake, the headwaters of the Owens River stream down the slopes of the eastern Sierra Nevada from snowmelt and springs, gathering together to form the River as it cuts its serpentine path south through the Owens Valley.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power begins holding back the Owens at several points along the valley in lakes and reservoirs. This is the Owens as it flows into Bishop, after making its way through Crowley Lake reservoir and Pleasant Valley reservoir in the Owens Gorge.

The genesis of the original Los Angeles Aqueduct lies 17 miles northeast of Independence, California in the Owens Valley.

It is at this intake above Independence that the LADWP first diverted an entire river in 1913--and began the long, slow death of Owens Lake.

In late 2006, under court order after decades of litigation, LADWP began releasing water back into the lower Owens River for the first time in almost 100 years.

The lake is now a massive gridwork in various stages of restoration and dust mitigation.

Frequent dust storms are still a major problem on the lake, although dust mitigation programs are cutting down on the number and intensity.

The small towns along the lake were decimated along with the lake, but the few residents who remain in Keeler maintain a healthy, if cynical, sense of humor.

Other towns on the lake, such as Swansea, have been lost forever.