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Mono Lake

Site Facts

Country, State, Province/Region:

United States, California

Relative Location:

Ringed by the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and the Great Basin, south of Reno, Nevada.


37.96 N, 119.11 W



Basis for Designation:

More than 100,000 shorebirds annually and 10-14% of the worlds population of Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor)


14,960 hectares (41,000 acres)


September 1090

Site Owner/Steward:

California Department of Parks and Recreation, United States Forest Service

Site Partners:

Mono Lake Committee

Human Population within 100 km:



Bartshe Miller
Mono Lake Committee


Mono Lake, a million year old inland sea, lies within a closed basin ringed by the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and the Great Basin. Mono Lake's naturally saline waters provide abundant food for a multitude of resident and migratory birds. The Mono Lake basin hosts many unique geological features such as limestone tufa towers that rise out of a shrinking lake, volcanic islands, glaciated canyons and the youngest volcanic chain in North America.

Mono Lake provides abundant food for resident and migratory birds. Microscopic algae in the lake nurture trillions of brine shrimp and alkali flies, which in turn provide nearly unlimited food supplies for waterbirds. No fish can live in Mono Lake's salty, alkaline waters.

Mono Lake supports up to 1 million waterbirds (shorebirds, grebes, gulls, ducks and geese) at peak migration during the fall. Thirty-five shorebird species utilize the lake. The most abundant migrants are Wilson's Phalaropes (up to 80,000, or 10-14% of the world population) and Red-necked Phalaropes (up to 50,000, or 2-3% of the world population). Shorebirds found during the summer and throughout the fall migration include American Avocets, Western Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers, Black-necked Stilts, and the threatened Snowy Plover (11% of the California population nests at Mono Lake). Other abundant waterbirds include Eared Grebes (up to 750,000, or 30% of the world population) and California Gulls. About 85% of the state's California Gull population, the second largest colony in the world, nests on Mono Lake islands.

Ecology & Conservation

While Mono Lake has been severely impacted by LADWP's diversions, significant progress recently has been made toward the lake's permanent protection. On september 28, 1994, the California State Water Resources Control Board voted to allow Mono Lake to rise from its current elevation of 6375 feet to 6392 feet above sea level, limiting LADWP's future diversions to approximately one-third of historical levels. The Water Board also ordered LADWP to continue the court-ordered restoration initiated on the streams, and to restore lost waterfowl habitat at Mono Lake. 

This stunning decision culminated fifteen years of effort by the Mono Lake Committee, a 20,000 member citizen's group formed to prevent the destruction of the Mono Lake ecosystem. Since 1978, the Mono Lake committee has increased public awareness as to Mono Lake's plight, filed and won lawsuits temporarily prohibiting diversions and allowing water to flow down dried-up streams, and gained international recognition for the lake. Along the way, the Mono Lake Committee has been joined by many environmental groups and agencies advocating the lake's protection. 

Previous legal victories helped to frame the Water Board's recent decision. In 1983, the Mono Lake Committee and the National Audubon Society won a landmark California Supreme Court decision. The Public Trust decision asserted that Mono Lake, as a public trust resource of the state, must be protected, as far as feasible. In 1989, the Third District Court of appeals declared LADWP's licenses to divert water invalid because they violated state laws requiring dam operators to keep fisheries in good condition. The Water Board was ordered by the Court to reissue LADWP's licenses to bring them into compliance with these requirements. 

Special designations have also helped to win protection for Mono Lake. In 1981, the California State Legislature created the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve, encompassing lands that had been exposed as Mono Lake's water level receded. In 1984, the U.S. Congress designated the 47,773 hectare (118,000 acre) Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area and directed that Mono Lake be protected for its geologic, ecologic and cultural values. The California Department of Parks and Recreation and the U.S. Forest Service jointly manage the lands around Mono Lake, with an emphasis on resource protection and natural history interpretation. Both agencies provided critical support during the Water Board proceedings which led to the 1994 decision. The agencies will continue to play a major role in the future, managing the lake's resources as visitation increases and helping to prepare plans for and monitor the restoration of Mono Lake's streams and waterfowl habitat.

Notably, Mono Lake was designated an Outstanding National Resource Water (ONRW) by the Water Board as part of its decision. The ONRW is a designation under the Clean Water Act which sets maximum salinity standards for a body of water. No violation of these standards is allowable. Mono Lake joins Lake Tahoe as the second ONRW in California. Mono Lake's status as an International Reserve in WHSRN helped to procure this special designation. 

Special Information



Bartshe Miller
Mono Lake Committee
P.O. Box 29
Lee Vining, CA 93541

Additional Resouces

 Community and Organization Research Institute (CORI). 1988. The Future of Mono Lake; Report of the CORI Study "Blue Ribbon Panel for the Legislature of the State of California." University of California, Water Resources Center Report #68.

Gaines, D. 1989. Mono Lake Guidebook. Kutsavi Books.

Jehl, J. 1988. Biology of the Eared Grebe and Wilson's Phalarope in the Nonbreeding Season: A Study of Adaptations to Saline Lakes. Studies in Avian Biology No. 12, Cooper Ornithological Society, 1988.

Jones & Stokes Associates. 1993. Environmental Impact Report for the Review of Mono Basin Water Rights to the City of Los Angeles. Draft. May. (JSA 90-171) Sacramento, CA. Prepared for the California State Water Resources Control Board, Division of Water Rights, Sacramento, CA.

National Academy of Sciences. 1987. The Mono Basin Ecosystem - Effects of Changing Lake Level. Mono Basin Ecosystem Study Committee, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology and Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics and Resources - National Research Council, National Academy Press.

National Research Council. 1987. The Mono Basin Ecosystem: "Effects of Changing Lake Level." National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

State of California Water Resources Control Board. 1994. Mono Lake Basin Decision 1631. Decision and Order Amending Water Right Licenses to Establish Fishery Protection Flows in Streams Tributary to Mono Lake and to Protect Public Trust Resources at Mono Lake and in the Mono Lake Basin.