Of water and dust


In all the hullabaloo of the Thanksgiving holiday, you might have missed a couple of important developments concerning water use while you were brining a bird or chopping cranberries. Here's a summary, describing a deal on the Colorado River, and a ruling about California's Owens Lake.

In 2006, the seven states that share water from the Colorado River reached an agreement  finalizing how states would share water stored in Lakes Mead and Powell during drought and surplus years. Mexico also has rights to Colorado River water but wasn't part of the deal, so this year officials decided to jointly address shortages.

On Nov. 20, the U.S. and Mexico signed a 5-year pact, updating the 1944 U.S. – Mexico Water Treaty. The new agreement tasks Mexico with drawing less water from Lake Mead in times of shortage, gives it rights to extra water in wet years, and allows it to store up to 1.5 million acre-feet in the reservoir. See our Nov. 23 post for more details about the historic agreement. 

Owens Lake, about 200 miles north of L.A., was once an important stop for waterfowl, but starting in 1913 most of its water was diverted to the city and the lake dried up. The diversion was immortalized in the 1974 movie "Chinatown"; the New York Times this spring ran a great analysis of the meaning of the water grab, which has been alternatively framed as both the ruthless act of a rapacious big city and as one of the West's first successful and fair transfers of rural water to an urban area.

For decades thereafter, the Owens River was reduced to a trickle; the department (L.A. Water and Power) that (William) Mulholland built into a powerhouse still owns much of the floor of the Owens Valley. Public ownership proved handy when the federal government was looking for sites for interning Japanese citizens during World War II; the Manzanar War Relocation Center near Lone Pine was built on land leased from Los Angeles.

... “The Owens Valley history is important for understanding the politics of water reallocation and the difficulties faced by water markets today,” Dr. (Gary) Libecap (of Stanford University's Hoover Institution) writes.

But once L.A. siphoned off the valley's water, it turned out that the exposed lakebed sediments were laden with heavy metals. Dust storms exceeded federal health standards and caused respiratory problems. In 2001 L.A. Water and Power began returning water to 40 square miles of the lakebed to tamp down the dust. So far the utility has spent more than $1 billion on mitigation and has sought to limit its liability for further dust control.

Images of Owens Lake rewatering project courtesy Aquafornia.

In late November, the California Air Resource Board ruled that Water and Power is solely responsible for controlling dust storms. The ruling agreed with an earlier order from Great Basin Unified Air Pollution District telling the utility to reduce dust from another 3 square miles, which would cost about $400 million. The utility filed a lawsuit against the BLM, the EPA and state agencies earlier this year to limit its responsibility, arguing that it's forced to waste 30 billion gallons of drinking water each year to flood the lakebed and that better options can be found that don't require water.

Now that you're up to date, you can go back to making turkey-kumquat quiche, flaming turkey wings, or whatever other creative things you're doing to get rid of leftovers

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor. 

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