Obituaries : Crash on Sierra Highway Kills Mono Lake Activist

Times Staff Writer

David Gaines, who 10 years ago founded the Mono Lake Committee to oppose continued water diversion by Los Angeles, died Monday when the car he was riding in was struck head-on amid windblown snow on U.S. 395 near Mammoth Lakes. He was 40.

The three-vehicle collision six miles north of Mammoth Lakes also killed a committee intern, Don Oberlin, 28, and seriously injured Gaines' 5-year-old daughter, Vireo. Gaines' wife, Sally, suffered a broken wrist. Their 2-year-old son, Sage, also was in the car but was not injured, the California Highway Patrol said. No one in the other two vehicles was injured.

Lack of Visibility

Officer Ray Ripley of the CHP office in Bridgeport said that the Gaines car, driven by Sally Gaines, was one of two northbound vehicles that collided with a southbound pickup truck. The truck driver apparently veered to the left to avoid a snowbound vehicle in front of him. Ripley said the speed of the cars has not been determined.

"The biggest problem was zero visibility," Ripley of the CHP said. He said it was not snowing at the time, but that winds churned up the snow, creating blinding conditions. The accident occurred between 8:15 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.

Vireo Gaines was listed in serious condition at Washoe County Medical Center in Reno. Sally Gaines was described in fair condition at Centinela Mammoth Hospital in Mammoth Lakes.

The Gaineses and Oberlin apparently were returning to Lee Vining from Bishop, where they had been working on the Mono Lake Committee's newsletter, a committee official said.

Gaines was widely viewed as an articulate and eloquent spokesman for saving the lake. At a congressional hearing in 1983, Gaines described the region as "having no rival anywhere else on Earth. Its dramatic islands, sweeping shorelines, volcanoes and limestone towers comprise one of America's most extraordinary natural treasures."

Gaines organized the Mono Lake Committee in February, 1978, and over the years took his cause for saving the 500,000-year-old lake before the state Legislature, Congress and the courts. He was the environmental group's board chairman and editor of its newsletter.

In Los Angeles, Martha Davis, executive director of the committee, called Gaines "an extraordinary man."

She said that Gaines' campaign was instrumental in a congressional decision in 1984 that created a National Forest Scenic Area protecting 57,000 acres near the lake and the Bureau of Land Management's designation of Mono Lake as an area of critical environmental concern.

Over the past half-century, the lake has been shrinking because four of the seven streams feeding it have been diverted by Los Angeles to supply the city with 100,000-acre-feet of water annually.

Near an Accord

More recently, the city and the Mono Lake Committee appear to have made some progress in reaching an accord that would protect the lake's ecology while recognizing the city's need for water. But a court challenge remains.

In August, the committee won a temporary restraining order requiring the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to open diversion gates and release more water into the lake. At the time, Mono County Superior Court Judge Edward M. Denton scheduled a full hearing on the issue for this Friday. A committee member said Monday that she does not know what the status of the case is.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World