I grew up in a farm family, so talk of water (or lack thereof) is nothing new to me. As a kid, I was surrounded by what seemed like a perpetual fear of drought. Every year, it seemed lack of rain was bound to lead to the worst crop ever. Before we moved “to town” when I was 11, we got our Rural Route #4 drinking water from a well, and I remember summers when it dried up and my uncles and dad had to refill it from a large tank they transported in the back of a pick-up truck. Now that I think about it, I have no idea where the giant tank was filled or where that water came from…
Around about the fourth grade, I decided I wanted to be an environmentalist lawyer when I grew up. I was probably at least partially inspired by my then-teacher, Mrs. Madden, who taught our class about recycling and conservation and even helped us write and illustrate a book on the subject, which we submitted for publication (unsuccessfully…but I’d sure like to find my copy and give it a read), but I’m not entirely sure why law. Regardless, over the years, I let go of that dream for reasons I won’t bother listing here…then in the last two years, my interest in environmental issues and conservation have piqued anew. It began with my concern over the wastefulness of single-use plastics (like grocery bags and drinking straws) and continues to grow and deepen.
In part, this trip represents an opportunity for me to slow down and give thought to what the heck I’m gonna do with the rest of my life, or at least the near future (where, what, how…). For a long time, I haven’t had much direction with regards to a career, and I long to change that…but have no idea where to begin. As a result, I’m wide open to inspiration! When I told my Tahoe hosts of my long-ago dream of environmental law, they suggested I explore water rights law, suggesting I’d always find work in that field. I’d never even heard of such a thing, but water seems to be a pretty serious topic of conversation around these parts. And – since the the Universe has a way of presenting us with lessons at precisely the right time – a few days along in my trip, I came upon Mono (pronounced MOH-noh) Lake and its story and happened into the screening of a documentary film called “The Longest Straw” – about water and shortage and rights!
Here’s the long and short of it: Mono Lake, located outside of Lee Vining, California, is one of the oldest lakes in North America. It’s a “terminal” lake, which means it has no outlets; water runs into it from the mountains and leaves only through evaporation, causing the lake to be very salty and highly alkaline, a little like laundry detergent. The lake is fed by a number of freshwater tributaries. In the early 20th Century, the city of Los Angeles began running out of water for its growing population and built a miles-long aqueduct to divert water from the Owens River (south of Mono Lake, also in eastern California) across the state to the city. Just shy of three decades later, when that source proved inadequate to meet growing demand, LA bought more land and – thus – water rights and extended the aqueduct north to Mono Lake. It cut off the tributaries so no water ran into the lake, diverting all fresh water to a city some 338 miles away by way of the aqueduct.
(As I write this, I’m currently 301 miles from LA, sitting on land that is property of the city for no other reason than WATER.)
The diversion changed the lake and its ecology dramatically (exposing the limestone “tufas” in the picture), and if it had continued at the intended pace, it would have threatened the existence of the lake altogether. In 1974, conservationists, lawyers, and the City of Los Angeles entered into a 20-year (!!) court battle that resulted in compromise: LA now diverts some water from the lake so long as precipitation and snowpack allow for Mono to fill back up again to an agreed-upon “healthy” percentage of its pre-diversion level.
In the documentary “The Longest Straw,” one intrepid LA resident (Samantha Bode) hikes the path of the aqueduct from her home in the city to its sources (the Owens Valley and Mono Lake Basin). She’s amazed by the great length(s) water must travel for her use and curious about the experience and perspective of folks living along the pipeline and affected by its existence. Bode learned much in her 65-day backpacking journey, and I learned much from the film. (As an aside, I loved my time and company in the “theater” at the Mono Lake Committee headquarters. I’m glad I stuck around Lee Vining an extra day to see the film and experience the community in that way.)
For most Americans, water just…shows up. It flows into our homes and out of our faucets and shower heads, through our washers and down our toilets with the pull of a handle or press of a button. We take it for granted. But it’s not guaranteed – and it makes good sense for us to know its source. Most of us won’t go to the great lengths Bode went to locate it or give as much consideration to the consequences of its flow…but her journey certainly made me think – and I’d encourage you to check it out, even if you’re a rural Midwesterner and most of your water comes [almost] directly from the clouds. Being in the southwest where water is and has been difficult to come by, paying $3-6 for each shower and scrambling to finish washing in time for shut-off, I’m thinking about it more than ever before.
I’m not saying I’m applying to law school or committing to a career path in water rights…but I’m extremely fascinated by all of it. And I’ll continue to stay open as I journey along to whatever destination manifests itself in my future, all the while taking shorter showers and savoring every drop of water I drink.