by Graham Chisholm

From Boom Fall 2013, Vol. 3, No. 3

Remaking a place for nature at Owens Lake.

The Owens Valley and adjoining Mono Basin are intimately connected to places far away, not just through the Los Angeles Aqueduct, but also through bird migrations that flow through the valley twice a year. Each spring and fall for millennia, hundreds of thousands of birds have moved along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada using the Owens Valley as a north-south flyway.

Bounded by dramatic mountain ranges—the Sierra Nevada to the west and the mountains of the Basin and Range Province to the east in Nevada—the valley is also a transition zone between the shadscale shrubs of the low elevation Mojave Desert to the south and the sagebrush of the high elevation Great Basin to the north. Despite the transformations that resulted from the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and exporting much of the water that used to flow from the mountains down to Mono Lake and Owens Lake, the Owens Valley remains a rich string of feeding, resting, and nesting spots for birds, many of which are designated as Important Bird Areas by Audubon California.

Owens Valley. Photograph by Chad Ress/Center for Social Cohesion

On the northern end, Mono Lake—home to over one million eared grebes, red-necked and Wilson’s phalaropes, and other waterbirds—has come to represent a remarkable environmental success story. The legal notion of a “public trust doctrine” was born of the legal battle to limit water diversions from the lake’s tributaries to the Los Angeles Aqueduct and has resulted in a long, gradual restoration of an astonishingly beautiful aquatic ecosystem in an arid environment. The sagebrush flats and grassy meadows of the Mono Highlands south of the lake remain a stronghold for greater sage grouse, Brewer’s sparrow, and other sagebrush species.

The Owens River links the highlands to Owens Lake. This snowpack-and-spring-fed river has received new life thanks to a 2006 court order mandating that the Los Angeles Department of Water put water back into the lower 60 miles of the river. The department takes some of that water back out of the river for the aqueduct at the lower end of its run, but the river is now a ribbon of life again. Cottonwoods and willows shade this green corridor in the dry desert landscape. Sadly, the Owens pupfish and Owens tui chub, two native fish, have disappeared from the river, though nonnative trout thrive there; and floodplain wetlands full of cattails and tule provide cover for birds and other aquatic life.

The valley’s southern end is anchored by Owens Lake. Water diversions had dried up the ephemeral lake until recent rewatering projects were begun to keep hazardous dust from blowing off the desiccated lakebed. The results have been dramatic and demonstrate the nearly instant power of putting water out on the dry lakebed. Invertebrate populations explode and the birds respond. The 100 square-mile desert lake had long been a magnet for ducks, gulls, shorebirds, and other waterfowl, and they have returned with the water. A one-day bird count this April tallied 115,000 birds, including twenty species of shorebirds. The lake also has spring-fed alkali meadows of sacaton and saltgrass that provide fresh water inflows into the otherwise saline lake, attracting amphibians, mammals, more birds, and other wildlife.

Over the past two years, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been negotiating a master plan for controlling dust and providing habitat at Owens Lake. The department has recently floated a conceptual master project to enhance habitat while minimizing the water used for controlling dust in favor of using other dust control methods on the lake. This certainly makes sense—conserving water while providing habitat and mitigating hazardous dust—but the project still has to undergo a rigorous environmental impact review. A binding enforcement mechanism remains to be worked out.

The city of Los Angeles and its Department of Water and Power have a historic opportunity at Owens Lake. The public trust doctrine is a legal doctrine that established that some water should remain in our rivers and lakes as a matter of public trust. In a very real sense, it states that rivers and lakes have some legal right to exist and without a minimal right to water they may not survive. The public trust doctrine saved Mono Lake. Returning water to the Owens River was an extension of the spirit of this public trust, although it was done without resorting to the legal doctrine. Ensuring the long-term viability of aquatic habitat at Owens Lake would be a fitting way to extend the spirit of the city’s public trust to the rest of an amazing ecosystem, whose most precious resource, water, gave life to Los Angeles.

Spring shorebird migration peaks in the second half of April at Owens Lake. Fall migration peaks late in August through September. The Eastern Sierra Audubon Society coordinates bird counts during the migrations. The “Owens Lake Big Days,” as these events are called, began in 2008, seven years into the Los Angeles Owens Lake Dust Control Project when thousands of migrating shorebirds and waterfowl, attracted by the water used for dust control, were being observed each spring and fall.

A “bubbler.” Courtesy of Mike Prather.

Shallow flooding to control dust and create habitat. Courtesy of LADWP.

Survey days start with an orientation at dawn and can extend well into the afternoon. Fifteen to twenty local birders and others from around the state work with biologists from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to form survey teams that spread out and cover the entire lake, recording all birds seen and their locations. Good bird identification skills are essential, as well as the ability to count groups of birds numbering in the thousands. Up to 22 different shorebird species may be seen on an Owens Lake Big Day. Large flocks of American avocets as well as least and western sandpipers flock back and forth over the lake making counting a challenge. Occasionally a peregrine falcon will streak through a surveyor’s location causing birds on the ground to flush up into the air. It isn’t unusual for counters to have to begin all over again once the birds settle back down.

Collecting population numbers is crucial for understanding, managing, and protecting the wildlife attracted to the new habitat created by the dust mitigation program, as well as figuring out how best to manage the water to provide habitat. Data from the Owens Lake Big Days is shared between Eastern Sierra Audubon, Audubon California, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the California State Lands Commission.

Canada Goose 2

Gadwall 782

American Wigeon 57

Mallard 54

Blue-winged Teal 3

Cinnamon Teal 560

Northern Shoveler 1,003

Northern Pintail 64

Green-winged Teal 107

Unidentified Anas species 3

Redhead 137

Ring-necked Duck 12

Lesser Scaup 2

Bufflehead 55

Common Merganser 4

Red-breasted Merganser 1

Ruddy Duck 3,265

Eared Grebe 15,510

Western Grebe 5

Clark’s Grebe 1

Snowy Egret 3

White-faced Ibis 193

Osprey 2

Northern Harrier 1

Prairie Falcon 1

Peregrine Falcon 3

American Coot 1,095

Black-bellied Plover 6

Snowy Plover 26

Semipalmated Plover 36

Killdeer 5

Black-necked Stilt 353

American Avocet 9,730

Greater Yellowlegs 221

Lesser Yellowlegs 8

Willet 10

Spotted Sandpiper 3

Whimbrel 53

Long-billed Curlew 2

Marbled Godwit 7

Sanderling 2

Western Sandpiper 3,279

Least Sandpiper 11,514

Dunlin 138

Unidentified Calidris sandpiper species 36,637

Long-billed Dowitcher 296

Dowitcher species 348

Wilson’s Phalarope 521

Red-necked Phalarope 69

Phalarope species 260

Franklin’s Gull 27

Bonaparte’s Gull 39

Ring-billed Gull 37

California Gull 27,545

Forster’s Tern 2

Common Raven 89

Horned Lark 176

Tree Swallow 57

Northern Rough-winged Swallow 2

Cliff Swallow 178

Barn Swallow 117

Unidentified swallow species 1

Marsh Wren 1

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1

American Pipit 131

Yellow-rumped Warbler 3

Brewer’s Sparrow 5

Black-throated Sparrow 2

Savannah Sparrow 58

White-crowned Sparrow 8

Red-winged Blackbird 47

Yellow-headed Blackbird 5

Brewer’s Blackbird 19

American avocets. Courtesy of Mike Prather.

Conceptual drawing of future habitat. Courtesy of LADWP.


Posted by Boom California


  1. Wow- really want to go to the Owens Valley in early spring to see it. Great article.

  2. Nice article on Owens Lake. The history of the birds returning is an important CA story.

    Two corrections:
    a. The ‘bubbler’ photo is mine and is labeled LADWP
    b. The photo labeled red-necked stilts is actually of American avocets.

    Are hard copies fro sale yet?


  3. Thanks Mike, we’ll make the corrections.

    The issue is indeed for sale — you can buy individual copies on the site here


  4. Nice article, beautiful photo

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