A dusty lake is plumbed halfway back to life

by Matt Jenkins




The dry bed of Owens Lake has a primal, wind-wracked sort of gestalt. With the Sierra crest towering almost 11,000 feet to the west and the blazing eye of the sun high overhead, it's easy to believe you're standing on the salt-rimmed edge of the sky.


Owens Lake hasn't actually been a lake for three-quarters of a century, its waters diverted south and the dry playa baked to an alkaline crisp. Four miles from here, the Los Angeles Aqueduct sparkles under the desert sun, funneling Owens Valley's water 230 miles across the desert and straight down L.A.'s thirsty maw.


Today, though, I'm sinking up to my boot tops in the long dormant gumbo that underlies the lake bed. In front of me, a row of bright green "bubblers" drizzles water onto the playa. Five thousand three hundred of them, arrayed 30 feet apart across the northern half of the lake, are slowly filling the curving furrows disked into the lake bed.


Nineteenth-century descriptions of Owens Lake frequently note its beauty and abundance of wildlife. The lake was a migratory stop for ducks and geese, eared grebes, American avocets and sandpipers moving between South America and the Arctic on the Pacific flyway. Local birder Mike Prather says that when ornithologist Joseph Grinnell visited the area in 1913, "He described wakes of birds as far as you could see across the lake."


That same year, L.A. water superintendent Bill Mulholland spiked the vein of the Owens River, which fed the lake, and diverted the water out of the valley to L.A. It took more than a decade for the lake to dry up, but when that finally happened the results were grim. Over the course of almost a million years, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals had concentrated in the lake; now the lake bed lay exposed to the winds that howl through the valley. Those winds can blow up to 70 tons of dust per second into the air, creating a gritty airborne mixture that, with prolonged exposure, can cause lung damage, respiratory disease and even premature death. Forty thousand people in the old mining and railroad towns along the lake, and in towns south into the Mojave Desert, found themselves breathing in the biggest source of particulate air pollution in the country.


Prather, who teaches in nearby Lone Pine, says that when the wind blows, "we don't let our kids out for recess anymore."


The air is crystal clear two days after Christmas, when I ride out to the lake bed with Terry Williams, a Los Angeles Water & Power supervisor, and Chris Plakos, a department spokesman.


"We don't deny what happened in the past," says Williams. "But it's different now."


The change of heart, and the solution to the dust problem, have been a long time coming - and are propelled in part by arm-twisting from the Environmental Protection Agency (HCN, 4/24/00: Dust settles in Owens Valley). But last November, Water & Power breached the L.A. Aqueduct and turned water out to Owens Lake so it could do something it hasn't done in almost 90 years - flow into the desert.


"You could almost water-ski on that," says Plakos as we roll past a flooded area off the edge of the road.


But the newly watered Owens Lake isn't meant for water-skiing; in fact, it isn't even meant to be a lake. The company that built the system has four more days to get it up and running, and crews are working fast to make final adjustments. When the system is functioning as intended, the lake bed will become an 8,600-acre mud flat.


So far, the city has committed up to 40,000 acre-feet of water a year * a bit more than 10 percent of the aqueduct's average annual flow. "But we'll see what's really needed as it goes," Plakos says.


"The idea," he adds, "is to saturate the ground, not create a lake."


More crudely put, the idea is to just barely get the job done - and Water & Power is making a Herculean effort to do that.


The agency's expertise at squeezing the valley dry may be locally reviled, but that skill comes in handy here, where getting as much as possible from every drop of waylaid water is a pragmatic imperative.


Water & Power will monitor weather conditions on the lake and adjust water flows to precisely match evaporation rates. Engineers have divided the lake bed into sections, and water that drains to the downhill edge of each section is captured and pumped back into the system for reuse. Under a separate program, the agency is rewatering the lower stretch of Owens River. "If the lake bed doesn't need (that) water," says Williams, "We can pick it up, pump it into the ditch, and send it on south."


The system is immense: two massive turnout structures on the aqueduct, a pump-back station at the lake, 300 miles of pipe and another 23 million feet of drip tube, 5,300 bubblers, 2,500 acres of planted salt grass, and a system of sensors and fiber-optic cables to monitor water flow rates, solar radiation and weather data. It will probably end up costing a quarter of a billion dollars.


Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb described the West as "a semidesert with a desert heart." It's not too hard to see the dust control project as an artificial heart, a massive life support system. Not, ironically, for the lake, but for the 40,000 people it affects.


For all its controversy, the construction of the L.A. Aqueduct and the tapping of Owens Valley stand alongside feats like the construction of Hoover Dam as proof of human ingenuity's power over nature. But this latest chapter in the history of Owens Valley may be one in a line of exhibits with another theme. It's part of the second, secret history of the West, the one where we re-engineered the world to our specifications and then had to go running back to stanch the fallout. Not before it killed salmon or desert tortoises, but before it killed us. The half-revived Owens Lake might just be the face of the next wave of habitat restoration, restoration for our sake, where the best we'll be able to do is split the difference with the birds.


Mike Prather, the birdwatcher, had pressed Water & Power for something more, but as Richard Harasick, the department's assistant director of water resources, told the L.A. Times, "We're not there to operate a bird sanctuary." The birds, said Harasick, "will be a happy byproduct."


In other words, L.A.'s need for water still trumps the habitat needs of wildlife.


Prather concedes that point. "We can't fill the lake up, realistically and politically, in this era," he admits. But he has a hunch that the birds might still find a place in this halfway-resuscitated ecosystem.


A small test run of the dust control system in 1999 hinted at the possibilities. After a few months, says Prather, algae began growing on the re-wetted playa. Then brine flies colonized the algae, and birds arrived to feed on the brine flies.


"There's a good chance that the dust control area could begin growing algae as things start warming up this spring," says Prather.


Then, he says, the birds will come again.


Matt Jenkins is assistant editor for High Country News.

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