Los Angeles’s Water Wars: Revisiting Owens Lake

It’s a sunny, clear Sunday—not a dust plume in sight, to the disappointment of our guides. We Los Angelenos are on a weekend tour of Owens Valley, ground zero of the California water wars; the event has been organized by the non-profit Center for Land Use Interpretation. In our white whale of a bus, we lumber incongruously through the small town of Keeler, California. Once a bustling port, the town now houses only about 90 residents; they live on the shores of what used to be Owens Lake, but now is just a bowl of dust. We’re here to see how the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) is trying to reverse this desertification of Owens Lake.

It was nearly a century ago that the DWP dried up the lake. In the 1800s, the department acquired 95% of the land in the Owens Valley for the associated water rights, in order to ensure Los Angeles would have a reliable water supply. The L.A. Aqueduct, completed in 1913, rerouted the Owens River—the lake’s only water source—through a series of reservoirs, pipes, and locks. The result? Unfed by the river, the lake, which once covered about 100 square miles and was 30 feet deep, began to evaporate.

Today, parts of Owens Lake look like a sandy desert floor, parts are under a few inches of water tinted red from algae, and still other parts are covered with a thick salt crust. The lake is the largest stationary source of pollution in America; its amount of wind-blown dust violates EPA standards of particulate matter 20-30 times a year. The EPA’s standard is 150 micrograms per cubic meter; levels measured at the lakeshore reach 12,000.

Now the DWP is trying to reverse the damage it did to Owens Lake. The Department has tapped into the aqueduct to re-direct up to a quarter of the flow back into the lakebed, and is using a combination of shallow flooding and managed vegetation to bring the water body within EPA standards. The project is scheduled to end in 2006 with 29.8 square miles treated.

According to Ted Schade, civil engineer and senior project manager at the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District, the efforts are only speeding up a natural process. “The lake would have fixed itself given time,” he says. “In desert areas like this, gravel would move in, sagebrush, shrubs, springs would move in. So we’re just mimicking things that happen naturally.”

Yet the repairs are not coming at a small financial cost. “The joke is, it would have been cheaper to cover the lakebed with dollar bills,” says Pat Brown, DWP operations manager for the dust mitigation project. “They say that by the end, the capital cost will be half a billion dollars.” Diverting water to the lake also means having to make up the difference down the line by buying water from the Metropolitan Water District at a higher price. Consumers are starting to feel the effects; in May 2004, the DWP raised water rates for the first time in 11 years.

An unforeseen consequence of the project has been a potentially dangerous rise in insects. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in no-see-ums, horseflies, and deerflies—they breed in the muddy edges of swamps,” says local resident Mike Patterson. “We’re trading one environmental problem for another.” Brown acknowledges that they’re expecting to see West Nile virus from the migratory birds stopping at Owens Lake. However, as Schade puts it, “If it’s not one thing it’s another: if it’s not dust, it’s bugs. Bringing life back to the lake means bringing algae, birds, bugs. Life means bugs.”

There’s a funny shadow relationship between the Owens Valley and the San Fernando Valley (SFV). The Owens Valley is what SFV would have been without water, and the SFV is what Owens could have been with water. Both are desert areas, but after the aqueduct was built, San Fernando Valley became the most productive irrigated farm community in America. Today it’s synonymous with malls and sprawl. The Owens Valley, on the other hand, is mostly recreational space, with hiking and fishing in the shadow of the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains.

“The DWP did the worst and best thing for the Owens Valley when they built the aqueduct,” says Schade. “It was the worst possible thing environmentally, but otherwise, we would have been the San Fernando Valley. When you’re sitting on Interstate 5 down there in Los Angeles, you’re probably cursing the water that you took.”

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