Environment & Science

More water coming to LA as long-running Owens Valley dispute ends

Looking to save more water for Angelenos, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power plans to expand a technique called
Looking to save more water for Angelenos, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power plans to expand a technique called "tillage" to control dust on the Owen Dry Lake bed, as part of an agreement announced Nov. 14, 2014. A bulldozer plows a series of furrows several feet deep to turn up a layer of clay that can hold dust down. Currently DWP uses 25 billion gallons of water a year to control dust in the Owens Valley.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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Los Angeles will receive more water from the Owens Valley as the result of a settlement Friday in a long-running dispute between the L.A. Department of Water and Power and air regulators in the Eastern Sierra.

"This solution...will save millions of ratepayer dollars and billions of gallons of water," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. "And more water will flow to the residents of Los Angeles to help our city respond to the drought and reduce our need for alternative water supplies that must also serve the rest of the state."

Under the terms of the agreement, DWP will introduce a less water-intensive method to tamp down dust blown from the bed of the Owen Dry Lake, a problem caused by L.A.’s century-long pumping of water from the Owens River system. Water that flows through the Los Angeles Aqueduct helps satisfy the needs of DWP's now-3.8 million customers.

Regulators are satisfied that DWP is responsible for controlling dust on at least 48.6 square miles of lake bed, and will grant Los Angeles approval for a broader use of what officials call a “waterless” tillage method. Basically, a bulldozer will cut deep rows in the lake bed to trap dust under a layer of clay dug from below. 

Relying on tillage, not shallow flooding, to control dust, DWP says it will use 3 billion fewer gallons of water on about 4 square miles of the lakebed beginning this winter. Right now, DWP spreads nearly 25 billion gallons of water a year on the dry lake. As tillage expands over the next three years, DWP hopes to reduce the amount of water it uses at the site by 12 billion gallons annually. 

City officials say that'll secure supplies for about 150,000 Angelenos over three years — or the population of Venice, Boyle Heights and Tarzana combined.

Garcetti cast the deal as “a century in the making,” and called it “a historic agreement that will change the course of our city and the state.” Recalling over a hundred years of relations with the Owens Valley “marked by an occasional dynamite blast and a whole lot of lawsuits,” Garcetti said that “the city today accepts responsibility” for the dust pollution it has caused in the Eastern Sierra. 

That pollution began when the DWP took water out of the lake after the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, revealing a dry, alkalai-crunchy bed. Monitoring the swirling dust left behind has been the responsibility of the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District, which was established for that very purpose. Controlling the dust has been the responsibility of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power since 1998, when then-DWP chief David Freeman first signed an agreement with Great Basin.

While that agreement has improved pollution from about 43 square miles of lakebed, hazy skies and harmful particulate pollution have remained problematic. “Each year Owens Valley has almost 20 health alerts related to the dust,” said Ron Hames, president of Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District Board. Hames emphasized that children and elderly people suffered from fine particulate pollution.

Today's deal resolves a smaller, more recent but still acrimonious battle over LA's responsibility for additional work — one that made its way through hearings at the Air Resources Board, in federal court, and at the State Lands Commission. This settlement will require approval by a judge in Sacramento Superior Court to take effect. 

Great Basin's executive officer, Ted Schade, said that negotiation became possible because the city of Los Angeles "for the very first time" committed to understanding the health and environmental consequences of the dust pollution. "It wasn’t just about them anymore, it was about us," he said.

In the midst of a historic drought, supporters hailed Friday’s agreement as a strong step toward a more reliable water supply.  But it also represents savings. Since 2000, Los Angeles has spent $1.3 billion on both controlling the dust and covering mounting legal bills. According to the DWP, nearly two months of the average ratepayer’s annual bill pays for the Owens Lake dust mitigation project. 

“Right now the water that is used for dust mitigation doesn’t go to LA,” said ratepayer advocate Fred Pickel. Importing water from northern California through the State Water Project, “we have to buy water at a significant premium.”