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.
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.
- 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.