SciSun: Treasures of the Lost Park   Leave a comment

Just off one of the most heavily traveled highways in North-Central California, on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, is a place frozen in time. The ghostly image of a waterfall, carved into formations over 40 feet tall and as wide as a bus is long, is etched into the rock only yards away from traffic speeding to their destinations. Yet just 10,000 years ago millions of gallons of water from thawing glaciers filled this entire basin with a shallow ocean; and today, the black-lava rock of Fossil Falls stands as a reminder of an ice-covered world that once was; a lake that disappeared; a river that was stolen; and, some believe, a world that could return again if the worst results of climate change come true.

Fossil Falls was once a cascade of the Owens River which flowed from the melting ice and snow of the Sierra Nevada into the Owens River Valley of southeast-central California. During the most recent glacial period (‘Ice Age’) the Mojave Desert and other arid lands we know today was a mosaic of glistening rivers and lakes supporting vibrant plant and animal communities that depended on the fresh water. Within a few thousand years, however, changing climate (possibly caused by a subtle shift in the way the earth is tilted toward the sun), most of the rivers and lakes dried up, leaving Owens Lake as the last, and most important, oasis in a rapidly drying environment.

The first humans had camped in Owens Valley around 10,000 years ago – perhaps following the mammoth, bison, birds and other animals who lived in, or passed though the area. By about 4,000 years ago the environment settled into a relatively moderate climate that could support human and animal populations with a variety of plants, small and large mammals, reptiles, insects and waterfowl. And of course, the all-important water without which nothing could survive. By the time the first European explorers came upon the area in the mid 1800’s, the native community of Little Lake Shoshone – descendants of those that had settled in the Valley thousands of years earlier – continued to live as their ancestors had, relying on the land, the animals, and the water.

Eventually Owens Lake, along with most of the Owens River and their surrounding environments, also disappeared into history. But they did not die a natural death. Soon after the Valley was ‘discovered’, it was recognized as a prime agricultural spot, and by the late 1800’s water level in the lake had begun to decline due to diversion and irrigation. In 1913, the city of Los Angeles – 325 miles to the south but growing rapidly ‘arranged’ to take all the water it needed (and it needed a lot – all those golf courses and lawns and swimming pools need water, you know!) from the Owens Valley; and within eleven years, Owens Lake was just a dry spot on the map.

Not all the water is gone.  There's some at the bottom of the falls.  In a puddle.  When it rains.

Not all the water is gone. There’s some at the bottom of the falls. In a puddle. When it rains.

Today, the California Water Wars continue – a story that books, lectures, conferences and movies have tried to understand, explain, and reform. (Completely removing a lake and much of a river wasn’t such a good idea it seems, particularly since the Owens Valley is an important spot on the Pacific Flyway that millions of birds depend upon for food, water and nesting sites). Although there’s no way to bring back all that water, one action that is being considered is the protection of Fossil Falls as a cultural heritage site. While the original people who made this place home are gone, fragments of their history remain: Obsidian flakes, the remains of knife and tool points, litter the ground; rocks worn smooth that were used for grinding stones, named matates; and the rock-ring foundations of home sites are a shadow of the once-vibrant community that depended upon the nearby lake and its resources.

To the thousands of travelers passing by the rocks and desert of Fossil Falls, few realize that the loss of water changed, virtually overnight, what was once a thriving environment into what today many consider a wasteland – and that the cities that were allowed to grow and thrive because of that transfer of water, less than a hundred years ago, are today themselves facing water shortages and drought. Unless each of us make good choices that benefit tomorrow, and not just today, in the future it might not just be the mammoth who go extinct.

Michonne Says:  Somebody would take away water? That’s mean. How will the grass and the flowers and the berries grow? Water is always just there, no one needs to take it and keep it for themselves. Maybe they don’t know any better and will give it back.

Posted May 4, 2014 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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