When environmental warriors fight... each other

Considering a vacation next year? Perhaps a nice weekend at the lake would be nice. If so, maybe you’d like to consider Owens Lake in lovely Inyo County, California. But before you pack up your water skis, fishing pole or kayaks, you should understand that the “Lake” part of “Owens Lake” is something of an optimistic term.

Although water once flowed into the lake from the Owens River, the lake eventually became “possibly the greatest or most intense human-disturbed dust source on earth” (Todd Hinkley, reporting for the U.S. Geological Survey in the mid-1990s) after the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) diverted the lower Owens River to the Los Angeles aqueduct in 1913. Although a chain of wetlands lining the lake’s shores with water from springs and artesian wells kept some of the lake alive, windblown dust from the lakebed–a toxic cocktail of arsenic, cadmium, nickel, and sulfates–has been found across the West. A 1999 Memorandum of Agreement with GBUAPCD, a 2003 State Implementation Plan, and an additional 2006 agreement between GBUAPCD and LADWP require Los Angeles to implement dust control measures on the lakebed in order to meet federal air quality standards, a goal for which the most recent deadline was 2010.

The aforementioned agreement for dust control and California’s air quality standards are at the heart of the showdown now taking place in Los Angeles. The lake has been essentially a dust bowl for a century now, and keeping all of that dust under control is an expensive proposition. (Letting the water flow back into the lake might solve everything, but it’s already too hard to find clean water in California as it is.) Now there has been a demand to control the dust coming off of an additional stretch of the former lake bed at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars and the DWP is crying fowl. Errr…. foul.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power filed a lawsuit Friday that would limit its spending on measures to stop massive dust storms at Owens Lake.

The agency argues that the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District is unreasonable to order the DWP to eliminate dust on 2.9 miles of remote, geologically challenging lake bed.

The DWP has already spent $1.2 billion to fulfill a 1997 agreement with the air pollution district to combat the powder-fine dust from the dry Owens Lake bed. The agency has reduced particle air pollution by 90% by introducing vegetation, gravel and flooding into vast areas of the lake bed.

While hardly a hot topic in the current election cycle, this situation is no laughing matter. The west is dealing with the long term consequences of human environmental engineering where we probably didn’t fully understand the implications of some of the projects that were undertaken. Also, it’s no secret that Southern California uses massively more water than they can provide themselves, and the problem is only getting worse. One of these days the system is going to get too far out of balance to correct. At that point there may be no choice but to allow significant areas to return to their natural state, which is essentially a mix of desert and semi-arid hilly terrain.

Exit question: If that happens… what do we do with L.A?

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