Urban Environmental Problems


“I have also directed and participated in research related to urban environments, including the use of and need for fresh water to make cities livable, as well as conflicts over fresh water, which was, of course, important for agriculture, hydro-electric power production, drinking water, and water to irrigate decorative city vegetation. One of my projects was helping protect Mono Lake, a large salt lake in Southern California. Mono Lake was breeding area and home to more than 1.3 million birds of five species, some using it for nesting and some for feeding on annual migrations from North America to far south.

Mono Lake received much of its water from streams that ran off the Sierra Mountains. Starting in the 1940s, the city of Los Angeles claimed Mono Lake as part of its water supply and diverted all the water that used to flow from the mountains into the lake so that the water flowed to Los Angeles, providing 17% of the city’s water supply- water that was the city’s best quality as well.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the lake began to dry up, with its surface becoming lower. A salt and alkaline lake, Mono Lake was breeding and migratory feeding stops for over 1.2 million birds.  As a result of the diversion of the lake by Los Angeles, the lake level began to fall, and saving Mono Lake became a popular public issue in Southern California; Cars had bumper sticker that said “SAVE MONO LAKE.”  A group of environmentalists set up “The Mono Lake Committee,” headed by a very smart young woman who knew how to talk to the legislature and persuade them about the right things to do.

Meanwhile, the city of Los Angeles claimed that the lake would do fine in the future, because it received ground water and direct rainfall, and the lake would decrease some but would still be able to provide the feeding for the 1.3 million birds as well as all the other environmental and aesthetic values of the lake. The Mono Lake Commissee argued strongly the opposite: that the lake was driving out, that already what had been islands in the lake where birds could nest were not peninsula so that coyotes could cross over and eat bird eggs, and that not too soon in the distant future, the entire lake would die.


The discordant politicized argument continue, but the head of The Mono Lake Committee persuade the California Legislature to pass a bill providing about $275,000 to fund a scientific study to resolve what would be the future of the lake. Originally, the Legislature, I was told, expected the California Department of Fish and Game would take over and run the project, but nobody at Fish and Game seemed to want to touch such an explosive environmental issue. So they looked around and heard about myself, then chairman of the U.C. Santa Barbara Environmental Studies Program, an ecologist who they had heard had run a number of controversial projects. They asked me to head the study and I did. Fortunately, I was able to persuade some of America’s top relevant scientists, including Wallace Broecker of Columbia University, an internationally famous geochemist, Lorne Everett of Kamen Tempo Ian engineering firm in Santa Barbara, an expert on water flow and pollution, and Joseph Shapiro of the University of Minnesota, an expert on lakes, to serve on the major committee to run the study. Then the funds were also be sufficient to provide funds to get scientists already active in study aspects of the lake to do specific additional research.

We studied several basic factors of Mono Lake. For the organisms that provided the food for the birds, we calculated their chemical limits. We had the entire volume of the lake measured and reconstructed the history of the lake with its past variations in level. These led to three crucial lake levels: the highest, which maintained all the bird populations and all the aesthetic qualities of the lake; a middle one which gave up some bird breeding areas and some of the beauty of the lake; and the lowest, below which none of the organisms that were food for the birds could survive and the lake’s ecosystem would no longer support life; the lake would, in that sense die.

Believing that in our democracy, our small team of scientists shouldn’t choose which level should be the goal, but that it should be open to the public, we published the results and gave them to the court that was making the decision. Our work led to a complete reversal in court decisions. Prior to our study, the court allowed the city of Los Angeles to continue to divert all the stream water that used to flow into the lake. Reconsidering the issue with our results, the court reversed its decision and determined that the city had to restore all the original stream flow into the lake and could take no lake water until the lake reached the highest of the three levels.

In our time, where so many environmental issues have become ideological, emotional, nonscientific debates, the story of the conservation of Mono Lake has several useful suggestions for today and the future. Environmentalists and non-environmentalists can find ways to work together. This requires: that political pressure groups on both sides come to an agreement to allow scientists to carry out a totally scientific analysis; scientists must understand in seeking the information and understanding that can solve an environmental problem, they are not the ones to also make policy. Instead, in a democracy, the scientific findings have to be presented in an understandable way to the public and political/governmental organizations. Then, societal decisions can be made that are acceptable to the public at large. When these steps are not followed, many in the public will say they have been hoodwinked. People may do this in any case, but the Mono Lake project shows that realistic, environmentally sound solutions can be agreed on by large populations when the methods I have described are followed.”

Mono Lake in the distance surrounded by California desert vegetation. The curving line shows the previous lake levels constructed by geologists from their analysis of the lake and its shores.
Mono Lake's food chain algae at the first level brine shrimp and brine fly at the second level (bird food)
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