Track 14: Mike Prather, environmental activist

Mike Prather is an environmental activist and conservationist who has advocated for the rewatering of Owens Lake and the Lower Owens River for decades. He and his wife originally moved to Inyo County in 1972 to teach in a one-room schoolhouse located in Death Valley, later relocating to Lone Pine where they live today. Prather was instrumental in the formation the Owens Valley Committee (OVC) and has served as its past president. Additionally, he is a member of both the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society and the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter, having served as a past president of the former.

Owens Lake became dry by 1926 due to the diversion of the Owens River into the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913. Before the diversion, the river had terminated at the north end of the lake which covered up to 108 square miles just south of the town of Lone Pine. After the diversion a much smaller brine pool remained, varying in size year to year.

Historically, Owens Lake was one of the most important stopover sites in the western United States for waterfowl and shorebirds migrating through the Pacific Flyway. Geologic records suggest that massive populations of migrating birds passed through the area annually for at least 800,000 years.[1] The following account in September 1917 by visiting UC Berkeley ornithologist, Joseph Grinnell, described the abundance of wildlife still present at the lake four years after its inflow was diverted:

“Great numbers of water birds are in sight along the lake shore—avocets, phalaropes, ducks. Large flocks of shorebirds in flight over the water in the distance, wheeling about show in mass, now silvery now dark, against the gray-blue of the water. There must be literally thousands of birds within sight of this one spot. En route around the south end of Owens Lake to Olancha [I] saw water birds almost continuously.” [2]

In the mid-1980s Prather and other Audubon members heard through the grapevine that LADWP was planning on sealing off several artesian surface wells located in and around the Owens Lake’s historic shoreline. The Audubon group had been counting hundreds, if not thousands of birds attracted to the limited water emanating from these sources. With their data the group was able to convince the Department of Fish and Game that wildlife, relying on these watered marsh areas, would be harmed if the wells were indeed sealed thus initiating an avian conservation effort at the dry lakebed.

By the late 1990s, a series of negotiations with the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD) forced LADWP to initiate a massive dust mitigation project in order to meet federal air quality standards by the mid-2000s. LADWP began shallow flooding on the lakebed as one of the legally mandated dust control measures in 2001. Currently, LADWP spreads up to 95,000 acre-feet of water annually across specific areas of the lakebed. Thirty-six square-miles of shallow flooding has, as a result, created viable marshland and shallow lake habitat that attracts over 241 species of birds, including some species which are federally threatened or endangered. Waterfowl and shorebird species sighted in the Owens Lake area include western and least sandpipers, black-bellied and snowy plovers, long-billed curlews, California gulls, American avocets, long-billed curlews, eared grebes, ducks, geese, and many others.[3] The presence of federally protected species does present a legal dilemma for LADWP, in that the department must continue to provide healthy marsh and shallow lake habitat well into the future for the birds and other wildlife now dependent on the newly resurrected Owens Lake.


Notes:
[1] “Owens lake,” Owens Valley Committee website. Last accessed 9/16/12. http://www.ovcweb.org/OwensValley/OwensLake.html
[2] “Birds of Owens Lake,” Owens Valley Committee website: http://www.ovcweb.org/owensvalley/OwensLakebirdlist.html
[3] Ibid.

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