Owens Dry Lake dispute pits LA, eastern Sierra against each other

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Owens Lake is 110 square miles of laboratory for controlling fine particulate dust deemed harmful to the health of people living in nearby Keeler and as far away as Ridgecrest.

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The Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District is at home in an old motel. Ted Schade, an Orange County native, now lives in Bishop. He says the LADWP shouldn't go back on its promises.

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Vegetation like saltgrass keeps sand and dust from swirling over the valley floor. Some of it arises naturally.

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From the sky, carpets of fabric cut orderly rows onto a northwesten patch of the Owens Lake. The fabric is thick enough to support gravel and keep dust down, but porous enough to let water through.

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Contractors have been working on an 8 month dust mitigation project in a 2 mile square piece of the lakebed. It costs an average of $200,000 a day to roll out fabric and fling gravel over it to control dust.

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A backhoe must transfer gravel to a flinger because the larger machine is too heavy for the sandy, dusty, alkalai surface of the lake.

Molly Peterson/KPCC

LADWP's Marty Adams says Great Basin is moving the goalposts when it comes to controlling dust at Owens Lake. "People don't understand what the investment in the lake looks like," he says. "What we do not believe is that the city of Los Angeles' rightful responsibility is a [new] 400 million dollar undertaking."

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A vast network of sprinklers sends water bubbling up into shallow briny pools that keep the dust down.

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The Owens Dry Lake is about 110 square miles, a portion of which is covered by a remnant brine pool. LA is responsible for mitigating dust on about 42 square miles of the terrain.

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This white crunchy powder feels like a powdered donut or a stale crumb cake underfoot. As it dries, tiny particles of dust are picked up in the wind and carried into neighboring peoples' lungs.

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Using bulldozers, LADWP has been trying a new technique called "tillage." Putting a bulldozer at an angle, operators plow in a straight line several feet deep through soil to turn up a layer of clay that can hold salty particles down.

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LADWP workers who live in the eastern Sierra monitor "tomato filters," attached to pumps which blend briny and fresh water to a salinity liked by salt grass plants.

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The town of Keeler abuts the Owens Dry Lake. The lake's fine particulate pollution is harmful to people and must be reduced to meet state and federal standards.

Molly Peterson/KPCC

LADWP had proposed a "moat-and-row" treatment in an effort to save water a few years back. The treatment was rejected by the State Lands Commission, which owns the lake bed. Now shallow flooding is again in use at those areas.

Hundreds of miles north of Los Angeles is Owens Lake: Thousands of its neighbors have a stake in a lingering fight over air pollution there. So do customers of the L.A. Department of Water and Power.

In the town of Lone Pine, an old motel with peeling baby blue wood siding seems a weird place for air regulators. "It’s got a leaky red tile roof," says Ted Schade, the executive officer for the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District. "Each of our offices has a bathroom because the motel rooms had restrooms." Schade keeps files in the bathtub.

The biggest problem in his district is tiny — smaller across than a piece of hair. It’s airborne pollution called PM-10. "These very small particles are able to get into the very deepest part of our lungs. And once they get down there, they really don’t go anywhere," he says. "We have a hard time expelling those particles. So it’s a health problem because of the size."

You’re supposed to find 50 micrograms or less of PM-10 to meet state standards. By way of comparison, Los Angeles will sometimes double that. In recent years at Owens Lake, Schade has measured 20 times what the state says is safe. "There’s an EPA database that all PM-10 air pollution data is reported to," he says. "In order to prevent people from making mistakes, they limit the number of digits that you can input into it. We're the only government agency in the country that reports digits over 999."

This little office of air regulators has responsibility for Owens Lake. You'll see it heading up Highway 395 to the eastern Sierra, hundreds of miles north, a whitish patch streaked with red and shimmer along the right-hand side of the road. When the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power took water from Owens Lake in 1913, it left swirling dust and bitterness in the Owens Valley.

Just 14 years ago, Schade’s Great Basin and the DWP made a plan to control dust to the standards, and add controls if necessary. That second part’s gotten tricky, as the city’s thirst for its water has created a lingering fight over air pollution and environmental values at Owens Lake.

A helicopter leaving from DWP’s L.A. headquarters counts me and Marty Adams as passengers. Adams directs the utility’s water operations. Nearing the Owens Valley, he says water fed the 110-square mile lake below but it was a terminal lake; no stream took it away before L.A.'s aqueduct did.

"So the brine pool, it looks like a solid surface. A lot of it’s like soup. It’s like quicksand," Adams says. "You try to land on it, you try to walk on it, try to drive on it, you’ll find yourself up to your waist right away."

Settlers in 1834 abandoned wagon trains in sand at the edge of Owens Lake, says Adams. Now one of the ways the DWP agrees to control air pollution here is vegetation. He points to scrabbly copper-brown looking stuff still dry from the winter.

"That's salt grass. That's millions of millions of salt grass plants, we actually had to take over two greenhouses so we could propagate those." He utters a short laugh. "That’s not something you can go buy at Armstrong’s."

DWP filters water from the brine pool together with that from the aqueduct for salt grass, and for shallow flooding, two of the three approved methods for controlling pollution. Hundreds of miles of pipeline are now buried in the lake. Roads on berms link dozens of pump stations. Dust pollution has dropped over 90 percent under saltgrass and water bubbling up from sprinklers.

But over the years Great Basin has ordered DWP to control more dust. Contractors have been flinging tons of gravel over a 2-mile square patch of lakebed at a cost of $200,000 a day, Adams says, shaking his head, as we stand at a northwest patch of the lake known as Phase 8.

Years after DWP put infrastructure in the ground, Adams argues that other controls may be cheaper and better for the environment — not to mention L.A.'s ratepayers. Now the utility is balking at an order from Great Basin to control dust on another 3 square miles of territory.

DWP has spent $1.2 billion on Owens Lake so far. Adams thinks the remedy has been made more pricey because L.A. can pay for it. "Los Angeles has been a willing partner but at the same time it's a deep pocket."

"It's not about the amount of money you spend," Great Basin's Schade counters, "it's not about the amount of area you covered." What matters, he says, is that DWP signed an agreement to meet air pollution standards — first in 1998, and again in 2006. Schade responds to DWP charges that he's moving the goalposts by arguing that L.A. is doing that which he's accused of.

"A promise is a promise. They've made promises in the past that now suddenly they've decided, now suddenly they've decided they can break," he says curtly.

This dispute goes to the Air Resources Board in Sacramento tomorrow. DWP is challenging Schade’s most recent order adding territory to its dust control responsibilities. Adams says the utility’s not trying to get out of all responsibility for the lake. But this latest legal challenge does signal that the DWP would like to limit it.

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