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Los Angeles finally ends a century-old water war

Sarah Gardner Mar 23, 2015
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Los Angeles finally ends a century-old water war

Sarah Gardner Mar 23, 2015
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California is known for its water wars, but they usually don’t end during a drought. That’s what’s happened in the Owens Valley in the eastern Sierras. Los Angeles and air regulators in that scenic rural valley recently made peace in an ongoing dispute rooted in the city’s century-old “water grab.” If your history’s failing you, think “Chinatown,” the movie.  

When William Mulholland masterminded the Los Angeles aqueduct 100 years ago, he had no idea of the environmental disaster that would follow. The aqueduct drained Owens Lake, once 12 miles long, eight miles wide. Owens turned into a salt flat, and when the winds kicked up, the dust storms were phenomenal. At one time, Owens was the biggest single source of dust pollution in the country.

“The dust would completely fill the Owens Valley here,” says Ted Schade, who recently retired as air pollution control officer for the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District. “It was actually really eerie because you would actually feel the hair rising up on your arm, the hair rising up on the back of your neck, and dust levels so high they literally could kill you if you didn’t have the ability to protect yourself.” 

Schade pushed Los Angeles for years to better control the toxic dust storms. Today the winds still blow in the Owens Valley, but those hair-raising storms are a thing of the past. For over 15 years now, Los Angeles has spent well over a billion dollars on the biggest dust control project in the U.S.

Ratepayers have paid a big price for it. “Two months out of their whole years’ worth of payment on a bill towards water goes to Owens Lake,” says Richard Harasick, director of water operations for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

But that’s about to change. Over the years the city’s flooded, gravelled and planted vegetation on nearly half the lake, but frequently fought with local air regulators over how much more the city needed to do. “L.A. always hoped they could get away with less control, less money,  less water than more,” says Schade.

The city agreed to fix the dust problem, “but never agreed on where’s the finish line,” Harasick says. A new agreement settles that question, once and for all, requiring the city to mitigate dust on no more than 53 square miles of the lake. That gives the city certainty regarding its liability, something it had been seeking for years. 

Both sides agree the valley’s dust problem is nearly fixed. “There���s nothing to argue over anymore,” says Harasick. “And so both sides can take all the energy that was going to the courts or arguing orders and really get to just geek out and figure out how to do Owens Lake better, cheaper, faster.”

Better and cheaper, meaning using less water, for one. After all, California is in the middle of a historic drought. So flooding trouble spots now seems wasteful. The latest dust control method is tilling the lakebed. “This is basically zero water, and it’s just creating a rough surface with large clods that the wind can’t erode,” says Nik Barbieri, director of technical services for the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District.

The patchwork of dust control methods on Owens Lake makes for one of the most surreal landscapes in the United States. But surreal is relative in this neighborhood. Death Valley lies straight east.

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