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.


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.