Migrating Shorebirds Ally with Clean Air Activists in the Owens Valley

Owens Lake and the eastern front of the Sierra Nevada range. Photo: Michael Prather.

“The Owens Valley is nothing but a resource colony,” Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation, told me. Her office in Lone Pine contains many more boxes of paperwork related to tribal battles with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (“DWP” as it is known in the valley), CalTrans, mining interests, and other private and public entities that covet something from the Owens Valley, than it contains preserved tribal archeological artifacts. Bancroft’s office is a site of an historic struggle for historic preservation and not the only site or the only struggle against DWP in this valley.

The largest, most unifying fight in the valley community has been to force DWP to reduce the amount of alkali dust from the dry Owens Lake, which, 20 years ago produced the worst air pollution in America.

An unintended consequence of the campaign to make DWP comply with the state and federal Clean Air acts has been the arrival of increasing numbers of shorebirds in the reborn Owens Lake.

“This started as a court ordered dust cleanup,” Michael Prather said during a bird count on the lake the week before Labor Day. Prather has worked for 30 years on land and water issues dealing with DWP, but says he’s proudest of the work he does to educate the public and resource regulatory agencies about the shorebirds’ return to Owens Lake. Overall, Prather has worked for 40 years on desert issues, lived for eight years with his wife, Nancy, in Death Valley, worked for a decade on the 1994 Desert Protect Act, and drew boundaries for new wilderness and expansion of Death Valley National Park.

“There was no thought about birds at the beginning of the dust cleanup,” he said. “But birds began coming back in increasing numbers, which has ended up putting additional responsibilities on DWP. In 2001, the first dust-suppression water was available for the lake and by 2002 the Avocets were already here because it is a good food source,” Prather said. Birders began conducting counts in the whole lake in 2008.

The main food the shallow, salty pools offer the birds are larvae from the eggs that Brine Flies lay on algae. Small crustaceans and insects fill out the diet. Because the Owens River is still flowing into the lake at the end of August, the lake is fuller than it has been in years, which cuts down on the shorelines some species like the Least Sandpipers prefer. But the river also brings crayfish and other invertebrates to the feast, and birds like to wash off the brine in the fresh water at the mouth of the river.

Overall, this year, the “cells,” as DWP call the units of the lake it has reclaimed from dry alkali flats, have more water than in recent years. These cells, about 25 or more acres in size, are divided into three types of mitigation, according to the plan mandated by regulatory agencies: gravel beds, native alkali meadows, and shallow water pools. The different cells, although not designed for it, ended up providing different habitats for different species, which have come to rest on the lake a few days, “to use it as a filling station,” Prather said, “in order to fatten up as much as possible before continuing their migration.”

Migrating shorebirds at Owens Lake. Photo: Michael Prather.

Owens Lake is now a part of a group of such brine-y filling stations, including the Salton Sea and the Great Salt Lake, key sites identified for protection by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. Shorebirds include species that migrate the farthest.

Other key stakeholders in Owens Lake include California State Lands Commission, which owns the water rights to the lake and owns the lakebed, DWP, which owns the water rights to the river, and most of the groundwater in the valley, Paiute, Shoshone and other tribes residing in six reservations, Department of California Fish and Wildlife, Inyo and Mono counties, and several towns in the valley.

Depending on my sources, I was either a week early or a week late for the flocks of Phalaropes and Avocets on the lake. I saw a variety of species on this early fall bird count, one of six DWP conducts annually, from Sandpipers on the shoreline to the ubiquitous Coot swimming not far from shore, to Ibis, Herons, Egrets, in the high reeds, and ducks. Prather and fellow birder, Rosanne Howard, offered binoculars and a telescope on a tripod for viewing American Avocets and Phalaropes swimming in the distance. Prather and Howard named more of the birds they were observing and counting: White-faced Ibis; Black-crowned Night Herons; Great-blue herons; Caspian terns; Yellow-headed Black Birds; Northern Shovelers; Marbled Godwits; Ruddy Ducks; Mallards, Grebes, and “peeps,” a term bird watchers use to describe small species like the Least Sandpiper.

This particular peep, about the size of a sparrow, migrates from Central and northern South America to the seashores of Washington State and British Columbia. Part of their voyage includes saline lakes of the Great Basin, Oregon and Washington.

Although about a dozen volunteers were involved in that morning’s bird counting, an employee of the DWP informed me that no counts would be made public until the annual report. Volunteer birders have helped survey the lake with LADWP every April and August since 2008.

Residents of Owens Valley, and particularly activists in the dust-suppression struggle, have a saying: “For the LA Department of Water and Power, lawyers are cheaper than water.” It serves to remind the curious traveler that the DWP did nothing to suppress dust, put water back into Owens Lake, or support birds that courts did not order it to do pursuant to the state and federal Clean Air acts and other environmental laws and regulations.

Phil Kiddoo, Air Pollution Control Officer for the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (for Mono, Inyo, and Alpine counties), is charged with fulfilling his district’s responsibility “for all federal and state air quality standards to protect the health and welfare of its residents and the environment.” To this end, the district has sued DWP numerous times – “We had seven suits between 2011-2014,” Kiddoo said – but he couldn’t come up offhand with the total number of suits the air pollution district has filed against DWP.

“We actually had a ‘Bury-the-Hatchet’ ceremony in 2014, but then there were changes in the DWP staff, and now we are in the courts all over again,” he added. “We now have three outstanding and one pending suit.”

One of the suits involves a 1983 state-Legislature act to compel DWP to pay all legal fees and expenses for the Great Basin air district’s lawsuits against it. Kiddoo said that what provoked the legislation was an earlier legal strategy DWP employed of multiple suits against the district to try to exhaust its funding. DWP is now contesting this legislation but simultaneously funding the district to defend it. Evidently, the second largest city in the country, with its fabled freeways continuing to cause climate change that exacerbates typical Western drought cycles, finds lawyers much cheaper than water these days. Four million (10-percent of the California population) on water rationing would not be a great advertisement for urban planning, so, knock the teeth out of environmental law in court, tooth by tooth, until it’s nothing but bloody gums, the residents of Owens Valley go back to breathing alkali dust, and the birds find other saline lakes in which to rest and feed on their migrations.

“Wealth, Pluto, was Folly’s strongest ally”, Erasmus wrote.

But standing on a gravel road through the “cells” of shallow water, banks of tules, gravel, and fields of native vegetation in midmorning, looking for more species of birds in the water and the reeds, this anonymous Inuit poem I just received captures the essential aspect of what it is like under Mt. Whitney and its tall neighboring peaks in the Sierra:

I think over again my small adventures,
… My fears,
Those small ones that seemed so big.
For all the vital things I had to get and to reach.
And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing.
To live to see … the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

Bill Hatch lives in the Central Valley in California. He is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade of San Francisco. He can be reached at: billhatch@hotmail.com.