Dust settles in Owens Valley

Los Angeles vows to return some water to a parched lakebed

  • Owens Valley and Owens Lake in California

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • A sign near Keeler in Owens Valley, California

    Jane Braxton Little photo
  • Sam Wasson, unofficial mayor of Keeler

    Jane Braxton Little photo

KEELER, Calif. - Owens Lake lies barren and dry between the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo Mountains. For nearly a century, the winds sweeping down from 12,000-foot peaks have stirred up the parched lakebed, sending clouds of caustic dust across the eastern California valley from Bishop to Ridgecrest. A single windstorm can kick up an 11-ton swirl of particles laden with arsenic, cadmium and other toxins. The people who breathe that air regularly have suffered from asthma, bronchitis and other, often deadly, respiratory problems.

"When it's blowing real bad, you have to go inside. That dust collects on your hair, your clothes, everything," says Sam Wasson, a retiree who has lived in Owens Valley most of his life. He's now the unofficial mayor of Keeler, a town of 100 residents on the eastern edge of the dry lake. "It's enough to make your eyes and nose sting until you get out of it."

This year, however, a promise of change is in the particle-filled air. Under an agreement between Los Angeles and Owens Valley officials, the lake will get some of its water back - enough to dampen its salty crust and decrease the dust (HCN, 2/17/97: Who wins when a river returns?). The agreement is too little, too late for many of the 40,000 people who have been breathing the arsenic-tainted dust, but it is a start, says Wasson. He's unabashedly optimistic about the future.

"This town will grow once the dust settles. It's going to be the garden spot of Owens Valley," he says.

From lake to dust bowl

The Owens Lake agreement represents an uneasy truce in one of the West's most notorious water wars. Owens Valley was a prosperous farming community in 1905, when the city of Los Angeles began buying up water options. Over the years, the city bought out hundreds of farmers and businessmen to obtain complete control of the valley's river system.

Instead of flowing through grassy meadows into Owens Lake, the water traveled 233 miles to Los Angeles in a concrete ditch.

Local residents fought the diversions through litigation and sabotage, including a 1924 "picnic" at the Alabama Gates that used dynamite to spill hundreds of thousands of gallons of water onto the desert floor. Owens Lake became a national symbol for the environmental devastation visited on rural communities by urban absentee landlords.

Now, Los Angeles officials have been forced to take some responsibility for the consequences of the city's thirst. The dustbowl of Owens Lake is by far the single largest source of particle air pollution in the United States, federal officials say, and it's a hotspot for PM10, the tiny particles that penetrate deep into the lungs. The federal Environmental Protection Agency ordered a plan for reducing the emissions in 1994, but the fight between Los Angeles and Owens Valley continued. The Great Basin Air Pollution District, charged with enforcing the federal Clean Air Act, wanted the city to restore 35 square miles of the lake by 2001. The city balked, threatening to sue over violation of its water rights.

L.A. sees the light

But in the 1990s, a growing environmental consciousness brought changes in philosophy and management to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. S. David Freeman, who became the general manager of the department in 1997, shifted the focus from the city's out-of-pocket costs to the health risks for Owens Valley residents. Instead of continuing to refuse to give up any of the city's water supply to abate the dust, Freeman decided to negotiate with the Great Basin district.

The 1998 agreement, incorporated into Great Basin's implementation plan adopted last summer by the Environmental Protection Agency, establishes a schedule for meeting air quality standards that avoids decades of litigation, says Richard F. Harasick, a Department of Water and Power engineer in charge of the Owens Valley project.

"We're over the kicking and screaming ... We want to be good stewards of the environment that's been given to us. It's a change in our way of thinking," he says.

The $100 million plan calls for flooding sections of the lake. By the end of next year, saturated surfaces and shallow pools of water will cover 13 square miles of the lake. By 2003, 16 square miles of the dry lake will be treated for dust emissions, mostly by flooding. After that, the department will treat two square miles of lakebed a year for three years until it meets federal air quality standards, Harasick says.

What's remarkable about the recent dust-abatement agreement is that some of the water used will come directly out of the Los Angeles Aqueduct that transports Owens River water to the city. At $350 an acre-foot for up to 40,000 acre-feet annually, that's a big bite out of Water Department revenues, says Harasick.

"This is all about quality - air quality, environmental quality, the quality of life," he says. "The trick is to do it as affordably as possible, using as little water as we can."

Prodding the city in its self-proclaimed conversion are a litany of legal actions threatened or filed by the Lone Pine Shoshone-Paiute Tribe. Los Angeles missed deadline after federal deadline while members of the tribe continued to breathe in the dust and get sick, says Dorothy Alther, a Bishop-based attorney with California Indian Legal Services.

"It was clear that L.A.was going to do nothing unless someone complained," Alther says. "We became the gorilla in the closet, continually threatening to sue everyone."

The tribe will be monitoring the flooding project for progress and compliance with federal law. There are many more battles to be fought, says Alther.

For now, however, the federal order and the agreement it produced between Los Angeles and Owens Valley is "the best thing possible," she says. "The day the first drop comes out of the aqueduct to fix the problem, I'll be out there with champagne glasses."

Jane Braxton Little is a freelance writer based in Plumas County, California.


  • Ellen Harabeck, Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, 157 Short St., Suite 6, Bishop, CA 93514 (760/872-8211);
  • Dorothy Alther, California Indian Legal Services, 819 N. Barlow Lane, Bishop, CA 93514 (760/873-3581);
  • Richard Harasick, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, 111 N. Hope St., Los Angeles, CA 90051-1460 (213/367-0910).

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Jane Braxton Little

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