Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Owens Lake dust kicks up questions about DWP's eastern Sierra efforts

As you drive north along highway 396, up in the eastern Sierra, Owens Lake is to your right, just about 5 miles south of Lone Pine. At freeway speeds, whitish sediment, streaked with some red, sets off the shimmering water - and the shimmering mirage - that remains in the lake. This 110-square mile piece of land is a casualty of LA's thirst for water.  

The LA Department of Water and Power's environmental efforts here seem to be a casualty, too, at least in part, of the utility's still-evolving approach to the eastern Sierra AND to renewable energy.

Owens Lake once supported a steamship line. It's hard to imagine that now, to look at it. Los Angeles pumped & diverted water away from the lake, drying it out, exposing its alkali-laden soils, and changing the area's pattern of life. The lake continued dry for almost seven decades before Los Angeles acknowledged - in 1990 - that dust storms caused by wind whipping along the flat long lakebed could cause health problems.

Alkali dust storms have kicked up as much as 4 million tons of dust in a year. People breathing that dust in places like Keeler and Swansea and Lone Pine complain about its respiratory effects; the dust is considered toxic by federal authorities. Walking in a dusty storm, it's more like a fog: the particles of dust are incredibly small. And dust travels: at times it's spread to San Bernardino and other points south.

(Just south of the lake, of course, the DWP has been rewatering the Lower Owens River, an effort to restore the ecosystem dried out along the river when it slowed to a trickle. That area's increasingly beautiful.)

At the lake, DWP has used sprinklers (the word they use is bubblers, which reminds me of Catholic-school fountains), ponds, saltgrass vegetation and other controls to keep dust down for years. It's a faintly preposterous sight, the range of mountains in the background, a row of rock, while in the foreground, a row of sprinklers spins water out. Rectangular pools keep shallow flooding orderly. Grass and native plants have sprung back where the water is. The alkali meadows attract American Avocets, least sandpipers, and other birds who once used the lake as a migratory stopover. The first census of bird life at the new rewatered lake found 112 species.

Using all that water, of course, costs money. So engineers from the DWP sought to come up with solutions that could control dust while using less water.

For a section of the lake a little over 3 square miles in area, DWP had wanted to establish a "moat and row" system. Small berms alternated with ditches would, in theory, catch flying dust, and protect it from the wind. That plan was nixed by the air district and the State Lands Commission, who objected to the proposal as unproven.

After GM David Nahai left, his replacement, S. David Freeman, began talking about the possibility that PV solar panels, installed on the lakebed, could help keep dust down. Last summer solar-panel tests ran into trouble in the preliminary stage. Engineering calcs and tests showed that the panels would sink in the weak soil.

 That left more than 3 miles of the lakebed without dust controls. Ted Schade of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District predicted the utility would blow past its deadline for compliance. DWP expected it would miss the deadline. And so it has.

DWP has been violating air standards established and enforced by the GBUAPC for that chunk of the playa since October 1. The penalty for those violations, if enforced, is $10,000/day. The air district's control officer, Ted Schade, wrote me in an email response to my questions that the air district's board is in discussions with the DWP to settle the violation.

"My Board will hold what is known as an abatement hearing on January 21 in Bishop where they will issue an abatement order. The order can either be a "Stipulated Order for Abatement" which means the APCO (me) and the DWP agree on the path forward, or a non-stipulated order that is issued by the Board without agreement by the DWP. We are working toward the former."

Meanwhile, DWP is still attempting to meet its obligations for dust control, if behind schedule. After the state lands commission and the air district found the moat-and-row plan inadequate in late 2009 and early 2010, DWP got until October 2010 to keep the dust down. According to materials filed with the State Lands Commisison,  "as a condition...Great Basin required the City to construct two additional square miles of BACM dust controls a year earlier than compared with normal procedures." Utility officials were at the State Lands Commission in San Diego Friday, seeking permission to put a 4 inch layer of gravel on two square miles of dry lakebed - a total of a million tons of gravel.

Gravel's a control measure that works and doesn't use much water. But it kinda kills the possibility of wildlife habitat in those areas. And state officials have long considered it a weak-sauce alternative to other controls - albeit one that's legal.

It's worth re-emphasizing that DWP's got dust over a lot of areas under control, using controls everyone agrees work: including water. December's not a big time of year for evaporation and dust, either.

It's also worth re-emphasizing that the DWP's solar plans at Owens aren't dead. It's possible they're just delayed: the utility did get a lease for geotechnical work at the lands commission meeting in Culver City in October. In the Integrated Resources Plan, the utility budgets for 200 megawatts of solar in the Owens Valley by 2013 - though there's no real explanation of how that's going to happen, even in the final draft. The last meeting DWP had in Lone Pine was in August.

I hope to find out tomorrow what the SLC decided about the gravel plan.


(I took these pictures back in March, when I had a chance to visit Owens Lake courtesy of the DWP, and record sound there.)

(Fun fact: the air district keeps some DustCams up and running at the Owens Lake for when CityView35 and CSPAN-2 lack the City Council and Bernie Sanders, respectively.)