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rOwens Valley Plan
Seeks L.A. Water
to Curb Pollution
a Resources: DWP opposes dust remedy, which would
cost millions and strain supplies if adopted. Local people
say they've breathed windblown salt grit long enough.
By MARLA CONE, TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER
LONE PINE, Calif.-Seeking to undo damage inflicted by distant Los
Angeles for over 80 years, a pollution board on Monday took a major step
toward forcing the city to return a large portion of its coveted water to
Owens Lake to curb dust storms that rip through foothill and desert towns.
Under the plan, the city notori-
ous for its unquenchable thirst
would be forced to give up 13% of
its cheapest water source, enough
to meet the needs of more than
100,000 families every year. Con-
sumer water rates in Los Angeles
would rise about 9%, and in
brought t years, the extra demand
S vould strain Southern California's
limited supply of imported water,
triggering a predicted water short-
age in one year out of every 20.
Orange County receives no wa-
ter from Owens Lake, and except in
extreme drought would not suffer.
The unparalleled $70-million
project would cover 35 square
miles of the parched lake with a
mix of shallow water, gravel and
vegetation. The plan is designed to
control salt crystals that sit atop
the sprawling lake bed and-when
whipped up by winds-occasion-
ally drape the Owens Valley with
tons of white powder that blots out
In a unanimous vote, the Great
Basin Unified Air Pollution Control
District endorsed the remedy after
14 years of exploring ideas for
curing the unusual pollution prob--
lem. After an environmental re-
view, the air board will approve a
final version of the project in May.
In addition to the estimated $70
million in construction costs, the
city of Los Angeles, which drains
the Owens River before it can flow
/*`$pto Owens Lake, would have to
Spend about $23 million annually to
replace its lost supply. The water i
would come from Northern Cali-
fornia and the Colorado River.
PUBLICATION Los Angeles Times
OATE December 17, 1996 1/3
The dispute over Owens Lake pits rural outposts
such as Keeler, in the eastern shadow of the Sierra
Nevada, against California's largest and most influen-
tial city, 200 miles to the southwest. There is little
hope that the new plan will heal the decades-old
wounds: Los Angeles officials say they unequivocally
oppose any use of their water and would mount a legal
challenge, while Owens Valley residents say they
have compromised and waited long enough.
James Wickser, assistant general manager of the
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, called it
an exorbitant and unrealistic expense for a dust
solution that city engineers doubt would work. He said.
the Owens Valley is taking advantage of the city's
"If the people in Owens Valley had to pay for the
solution, I'd bet my paycheck that no one there would
care about the dust problem at Owens Lake," Wickser
"With the number of people in Keeler, you could give
them a million dollars each and relocate them and it
would be a heck of a lot cheaper. I don't see how we can
in good conscience spend that amount of our customers'
money for what I personally consider a very minor
health problem and aesthetic problem," he said.
The city's attitude infuriates many of the 40,000
people from Lone Pine to Ridgecrest who periodically
choke on the eye-stinging, throat-burning grit that
blows off the playa.
Los Angeles "created the situation, so they ought'tb
fix it," said Andy Morris, a retiree in Keeler, a town
of 50 on the eastern shore of Owens Lake. "All they've
been doing is sitting on. their ass for 100 years,
studying the lake. There's one simple answer. Put the
water back in that you stole from it. How many
generations does it take to study it?"
As much as 4 million tons of the salty particles blow
off the dry lake every year.
"If wind comes over the Sierras, it gets so bad you
can barely see the house across the street," said Mark
McCall, a welder who has lived in Keeler for 24 years.
"It's not that you can't breathe, it's more like you don't
want to breathe."
Particulates are considered among the most danger-
ous air pollutants because they can clog airways,
penetrate the lungs and aggravate serious heart and
lung diseases, such as asthma, and bring on infections
One day last year in Keeler, particles surged to a
nationwide record that was 23 times greater than a
federal health standard allows. Keeler residents are
exposed to unhealthful levels 25 days a year. In
Ridgecrest, 60 miles south of the lake, that situation
occurs 10 days a year, according to the Great Basin air
"When we see the white cloud headed down
through the pass, the ER and doctors' offices fill up
with people who suddenly got worse. It's a pretty
straightforward cause and effect," jaid Dr. Bruce
Parker, an emergency physician at Ridgecrest Com-
munity Hospital. "This is one of the most massive
doses of [particulates] that exists anywhere."
The water war between Los Angeles and the Owens
Valley is an infamous tale of greed and scandal that
inspired the movie "Chinatown." As it boomed i-.
early 1900s, Los Angeles went to great lengths to.,
control of the water from farmers and ranchers m
S PEC lALPBLIC AFFAIRS CLIPSHEET
METROPOLITANWATER DISTRICTOFSOUTHERNCAIFORNA PUBLICATION Los Angeles Times
DATE December 1l, 1996 2/3
Defeating the Dust
A plan to restore part of the dry Owens Lake to
control dust storms would cost the city of Los
Angeles an estimated $69.7 million in construction ,
costs, plus $25 million a year in maintenance. ..
VICTOR KOTOWITZ / Los Angeles Time
SUaLIC AFFAIRS CLIPSHEET
S'. "E-CPCLE, i 2STP.C'FCSUTHERN CALIFORNIA
ruN In 1913, the city's aqueduct began diverting the
Owens River, turning the alkaline lake into a giant
dust bowl by the 1920s and transporting massive
volumes of water, now worth $170 million a year, to
Generations later, the Owens Valley is wielding a
powerful club against Los Angeles-the federal Clean
Air Act, which requires states to craft a plan to clean
up particulates by 1997 and implement it by 2001. If
the state fails to comply, the federal government can
impose economic sanctions and step in with solutions
of its own.
A separate state law requires Los Angeles to pay for
"reasonable measures" chosen by the Owens Valley
pollution agency to fix Owens Lake.
ome uncertainties remain, though. The local board
could change its mind in May if any serious
environmental impacts are uncovered, and the DWP
may be able to persuade the Wilson administration's
Air Resources Board to alter the proposal or seek a
delay from the federal government. But once the plan
is adopted, the DWP. must follow the order or
challenge it in court.
The water, gravel andvegetation project would take
at least five years to complete, so to meet the 2001
deadline, Los Angeles would have to begin construc-
tion next year.
The aim is to control dust on a crescent-shaped
area-as large as Pasadena and Santa Monica com-
bined-that encompasses onthird of the 110-square-
mile lake bed. '
About 13 square miles .woulbe flooded year-round
with one to two inches afwatEfrom the Los Angeles
Aqueduct-creating a w ^ea'resembling a beach at
low tide. Another 14 sqk miles would be planted
with salt grass and irrigated.with a farm-like lattice of
canals and drains, while eight'S.quare miles would be
covered with a four-inch layer of gravel. The wet
areas would be expected to draw wintering water-
fowl-an ecological and aesthetic boon to the area.
More than one-third of the estimated $70 million in
upfront costs would be for from mining and hauling
the gravel, which would fill 175,000 trucks.
To irrigate the playa, Los Angeles would have to
give up an estimated 43 million gallons of water a day,
or 51,000 acre-feet a year. To compensate, the city
would be forced to buy more expensive imported water
from the San Francisco Bay-San Joaquin River Delta
and the Colorado River.
The city's extra needs would put added stress on the
imported supply shared by the 16 million residents of
Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San
Diego and Ventura counties.
"In a year like this, it would hardly be noticed
anywhere. There's plenty of water in the system and
demand is down. But it's yet an additional problem for
us to deal with during difficult drought years," said
Jay Malinowski of the Metropolitan Water District,
which manages the imported water.
"If the city loses any water, one source they would
turn to is the Metro Water District, which then has a
possible effect on other customers .. in terms of
availability," said Bob Gomperz, spokesman for the
MWD. "We kind of have a 'share the pain equally'
policy. But it would have to be a really prolonged
drought for that to happen."
Los Angeles Times
December 17, 1996
In the last year, the'city of Los Angeles has bought
117,000 acre-feet of water from MWD, while Orange I
County water districts bought a combined 292,000 acre
feet. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, or about the
amount of water needed each year by two households.
But even though Orange County is a bigger current
customer, Los Angeles has been paying taxes to the
MWD for a lot longer, Gomperz said, and would have
preferential rights to badly needed water.
During occasional droughts, extra water might have
to be drained from the ecologically sensitive Bay-.
Delta, Malinowski said.
"You cannot add 50,000 acre-feet to the demand
without having an impact somewhere. You trade pine
environmental issue for another," Malinowski said. '
Facing a long string of defeats in court and, new'.
environmental rules, the DWP in 1994 surrendered in
another long fight and restricted its water use from
scenic Mono Lake in the High Sierra. --
But at Owens Lake, instead of bringing the adv
series together, the talks have seemed to deepen.th
division, and there is no compromise in sight DW.
officials say state law is on their side, because it bari'
the air board from affecting Los Angeles' right to
divert water, while the agency says its project meets
the intent of state law.
The small pollution agency, governed by six county
Supervisors iand;ne town council member from
the Eastern Sierfa, says it tried to find a solution that i
uses the least water possible, spending $20 million in
DWP money since49~3 to research dozens of options.
"I'm for anything, tht will move this forward and
eliminate-and P.em. asize eliminate-this [dust]
problem," said Inyo Cunty Supervisor and air board
member Paul Payne. ',
Many community residents want their lake back and
urged the board-to male Los Angeles return all Owens
River water, an option dismissed as extreme. Also
rejected was pumping of local ground water, which
would dry up natural:springs and cause land to subside.
Ted Schade, thg air b6ard's project manager, said that
from 96% to 100% of dust was eliminated in experiments
that flooded a square mie of the lake bed and covered
smaller areas witlfgrgvetand irrigated plants.
Still, DWP officials say they will not support any
solution until more datais collected.
Ray Prittie, a DWP civil engineer, said shallow
flooding may be ineffective because the lake bed is not
flat and it could create dry, dusty islands. Also, salt
might migrate through the gravel and the plants may
not survive the rough environment.
"Nothing works the way it's supposed to out on Owens
Lake." Prittle said. "It can really be a deep pit to pour
money into without getting much benefit in return."
Also contributing to this report was Time* staff writer