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A Hidden Desert Oasis: The Past and Present of Piute Ponds

Written by: Alexandra Jonassen, MOAH Collections.


Located on Edwards Airforce Base just southeast of the city of Rosamond lies Piute Ponds, a lush ~5,614 acre wetland habitat surrounded by desert. Many animals have made the ponds their home, including over two hundred species of birds. This rich and diverse wildlife presence has brought nature lovers and hunters alike to the area for over sixty years. Despite the ponds’ large size and diverse fauna, many locals have never heard of the area’s history.


How Piute Ponds Formed:


In the past, the well known Amargosa Creek flowed from the San Gabriel Mountains down into Rosamond Dry Lake, filling the southern portion of the lakebed with water. This water attracted many birds and several hunting clubs became active in the area, utilizing the filled lake bed (Friends of Piute Ponds).

As the Antelope Valley developed, in 1959, the Los Angeles County Sanitation District

14 decided to utilize Amargosa Creek’s natural drainage path and created a dike in the area to divert increasing amounts of water waste from running into the northern Rosamond Dry Lake bed (Mozingo, 2001). This dry lakebed has since been used as an emergency landing strip for Edwards Air Force Base, and has been used for projects including early Space Shuttle tests and operational flights (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). The Sanitation District’s new dike allowed for water to fill the area to create the freshwater marshland. Several ponds were then created in the area in 1961 to create what is now known as the Piute Ponds complex.



Figure 1: 1963 Aerial Photo of Piute Ponds located at South Western end of Rosamond Dry Lake


History of Antelope Valley Duck Hunters:

Multiple duck hunting clubs operated in the Antelope Valley area prior to the formation of the Piute Ponds complex in 1959. Several natural springs existed in the area and water from Amargosa Creek continued to fill parts of the Rosamond Dry Lake bed seasonally. After WWI ended, during the 1920s, the public had a large interest in participating in the outdoors and recreational activities. This desire spurred the development of the AV’s duck hunting clubs.

Three of the most prominent duck hunting clubs established in the Antelope Valley were the Oasis Duck Club, the Crystal Wells Gun Club, and the Piute County Club. Some of these clubs were made by homesteaders and some were privately owned by wealthy citizens from Los Angeles. They were often visited for entertainment by Hollywood Stars and athletes, including Charles Henry Root, a Major League Baseball pitcher for the Chicago Cubs (Settle, 1994). In addition to building dikes, holding ponds, hunting blinds, and windbreaks to be used in duck hunting, the clubs also made cabins for longer vacation stays . This all took place at a time when the Antelope Valley was becoming a center for recreational activities and weekend stays to the people of Los Angeles with its dude ranches and duck clubs. In addition, these ranches and clubs would serve as cover during the Prohibition era, as many were able to gain a liquor license by owning a club (Earle 1998: 194).


Figure 2: Constable E.E. Cummings Duck Hunting, Palmdale Lake, 1901 (Courtesy of Lancaster Museum, Lancaster, California)

Figure 3: Duck Hunters, 1905 (Courtesy of Lancaster Museum, Lancaster, California)

Figure 4: Duck Hunters in the Mojave, 1905 (Courtesy of Lancaster Museum, Lancaster, California)


After WWII ended, in 1945, the US government began purchasing large tracts of land, including several of these duck clubs, for its developing military bases. This included the Crystal Wells and Oasis Duck Clubs that can be seen on the USGS Rogers Lake 1942 topographic maps (Figure 5). Piute Gun Club was also eventually bought out by the US government, and its location currently lies within the modern-day area of Piute Ponds (see Figure 6 for a map showing the location of Piute Gun Club in 1943 and Figure 7 for an overview photo of the facility). Piute Gun Club not only offered the ponds to its guests, but also had a nine hole golf course, skeet range, badminton and horseshoe courts, archery targets, outdoor dancing areas, and a clubhouse frequented by local visitors. At one point, the organization formed a country club which sponsored a model airplane contest for AV residents (Antelope Valley Ledger-Gazette 1939). This contest is still held today, now located at the north end of Rosamond Lake.


Figure 5: USGS Rogers Lake 1942 topographic maps showing location of Oasis Duck Club and Crystal Wells Gun Club near Rosamond Dry Lake.

Figure 6: Location of Piute Gun Club on 1943 Rosamond USGS Topographic Quadrangle Map (USGS Topographic Maps Database)

Figure 7: Piute County Club, 1941 (Courtesy of Lancaster Museum, Lancaster, California)


In 1961, the Piute Gun Club came to an end and the Piute Ponds area was formed. Ducks Unlimited expanded the ponds in 1986 by constructing five dikes north and northeast of the ponds. The complex is now 320-360 acres large with 2,180 acres designated for hunting, and it has a unique amount of wildlife present in the area (Norwood 1985).


Diverse Fauna:


The Piute Ponds area is the largest freshwater wetland in Los Angeles county. Due to its unique setting, the ponds support approximately 100 plant species, 20 mammals, 20 reptiles, 500 invertebrates, and 300 birds (Edwards Air Force Base, 2017). It also includes many sensitive plant species such as alkali mariposa lilies and Rosamond eriastrum as well as many sensitive bird species such as LeConte’s Thrasher, California Least Tern, Willow Flycatcher, Redhead, Tricolored Blackbird, and Loggerhead Shrike (Edwards iSportsman). What birds are present in the area vary seasonally according to their different migration patterns across the Great Basin Corridor of the Pacific Flyway, one of four major migration routes for birds across the United States (Dateline Edwards).

Due to its unique location along this corridor and in the middle of a desert environment, many rare birds coming from all over the globe have been found at Piute Ponds. These birds are often called vagrant birds, meaning they are appearing well outside of their normal habitat ranges. Vagrant birds are often thought to have been blown off course from their usual migration routes. An example of a vagrant bird found at Piute Ponds includes the Little Stint, which breeds in arctic Europe and Asia and migrates in the winter to Africa and south Asia. Other rare birds that have been spotted include the Pacific Golden Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Still Sandpiper, and the Hudsonian Godwits (Dateline Edwards).

Other animals including mammals and reptiles utilize the water from Piute Ponds as well, including bobcats, badgers, kit foxes, coyotes, raccoons, marmots, and kangaroo rats. These animals can be spotted drinking along the ponds (Friends of Piute Ponds). The amount of wildlife here has caused birdwatchers to frequent the area, and local schools often organize educational trips for students to study this unique desert oasis.


Interested in visiting Piute Ponds?


Today, nature enthusiasts as well as hunters can access Piute Ponds with express permission from Edwards Air Force Base. If you are interested in visiting Piute Ponds for bird watching, volunteering to help clean and manage the ponds, or for educational field trips you may contact Edwards Airforce Base representative Misty Hailstone at Misty.Hailstone.1@us.af.mi to request access. You can also join the Friends of Piute Ponds society who work to protect and explore the area at https://www.piuteponds.org/volunteer.php. Piute Ponds has been a notable stopping ground for Antelope Valley residents for years. Its unique wildlife and history makes it a true desert oasis.



Figure 8: Detailed Map of Ponds and Marshes within the Piute Ponds Complex Today (Friends of Piute Ponds)



References:


Antelope Valley Ledger-Gazette

1939 “Piute Country Club Has Grand Opening.” July 20, Volume LIII, page 1.


Dateline Edwards

2011 Dateline Edwards, Piute Ponds feature wide variety of birds, wildlife


Earle, D.D.

1988 Muroc Community Inventory, Edwards AFB, Kern County, California. Computer Science

Corporation, Edwards Air Force Base, California. Submitted to the Air Force Flight Test Center,

Environmental Management Directorate, Edwards Air Force Base


Edwards Air Force Base

2017 Piute Ponds feature large variety of birds, wildlife.


Edwards iSportsman


Friends of the Piute Ponds


Mozingo, Joe

2001 Mojave’s Artificial Oasis at Risk. Los Angeles Times, California.


National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Norwood, R.H.

1985 Field Check Results for EAFB Historic Resources, EAFB-687.


Settle, Glen Allen

1994 Oral History Program Transcript of Glen Settle, Muroc Community Inventory (A Legacy Resource Management Project), Edwards AFB, Kern County, California. June. David D. Earle, Interviewer / Photo Documentation; Linda Stowe, Transcriber. Computer Sciences Corporation, Edwards AFB Flight Test Center.


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