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Natural Perspectives: Owens Valley slowly recovering

April 20, 2011|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • One of the thousands of American pipits that were feeding on the hordes of brine flies at the restored area of Owens Lake.
One of the thousands of American pipits that were feeding… (Lou Murray, HB Independent )

Vic and I have just returned from a field trip with Sea & Sage Audubon Society to the Eastern Sierras. We went primarily to see the progress on the Owens Lake restoration, as well as to watch sage grouse courtship and to scout out locations for the birding classes that Vic leads to that area.

Linda Oberholzer was our leader for this trip. It was a relief that Vic didn't have the responsibility for organizing or keeping the 13-car caravan together. It was really nice to be able to relax and enjoy being a participant instead of leading. Others from Huntington Beach on this trip were Lena Hayashi and Dick and Pat Cabe. All three are longtime environmental activists who participate in the monthly bird surveys at Shipley Nature Center and the Huntington Wetlands, both of which Lena is the organizer.

We started Saturday morning with a tour of Owens Lake led by Mike Prather, an environmental activist from Lone Pine. He is one of the many people involved in the ongoing restoration and dust abatement project there.

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"This is a very big story," Prather said. "Owens Lake restoration is in the works, but it's not done yet."

A decade ago, Owens Lake was a dry salt flat. Whenever the wind blew, toxic dust filled the air, making Owens Valley one of our nation's worst areas for air pollution. But it was not always that way.

A century ago, Owens Lake was a wide, crystal blue lake that was fed primarily by the Owens River that came down from the Mammoth area, through Bishop, Independence and Lone Pine. Tributary mountain streams fed into the river along the way. A steamship provided transportation for silver ingots that were extracted on the east side of Owens Lake. The steamship carried the ingots to the west side at Cartago, where the silver was loaded onto mule-drawn wagons for transport to Los Angeles. As they had for thousands of years prior, waterfowl and shorebirds darkened the skies during spring and fall migration.

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