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LADWP says Owens Lake's 'Owengeti' could suggest new modes for dust control

LADWP's Marty Adams says he calls one parcel of the Owens Dry Lake
LADWP's Marty Adams says he calls one parcel of the Owens Dry Lake "the Owensgeti," after the grass and woodland Serengeti.
KPCC/Molly Peterson
LADWP's Marty Adams says he calls one parcel of the Owens Dry Lake
In one 600-acre patch of the lake, LADWP has begun to mimic nature as an experiment. "We took this area and we releveled it so we put better angles on the dirt, and it worked well," Adams says.
KPCC/Molly Peterson
LADWP's Marty Adams says he calls one parcel of the Owens Dry Lake
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.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

I went out to Owens Lake for a story on dust mitigation with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power back in April. When I did, Marty Adams and pretty much everyone else from the DWP I encountered were all eager to show me an area on the northeast side of the lake. Adams called it "the Owengeti."

The Serengeti is a grass-woodland in Tanzania and other countries in Africa, legendary for its beauty. (See, e.g., Toto, "Africa.") This 600-acre "Owengeti" is on the far side of the lake, away from Highway 395--unfortunate, says Adams, "because it's far from traffic. The average person sees the salt flats; they don't see the beautiful part on the east side." 

There's plenty of crusty white powder near the "Owengeti," too. It crunches satisfyingly underfoot, though I also was immediately burdened knowing that I contributed to the possibility of the particulate, PM10, flying through the air. "It's like walking on the moon. except i thought the moon would be firmer," Adams said. "It's like a powdered sugar donut." (Though I sort of think it's more like Entemann's crumb cake.)

This beautiful area came about by accident. It was once watered by the ubiquitous "bubblers," which are essentially oversized sprinklers that resemble the kind that might be on your lawn (if you still have a lawn). There developed here a problem with how water out of the bubblers met and made small river channels. "So we took this area, and we re-leveled, [putting] better angles on the dirt. And it worked really really well," DWP's Adams added. "We harvested native plant seeds and rhizomes, and broadcast them out over this entire 600 acre piece of land." Adams says it yielded "quite a bit of different habitat for various birds and what not." Birds did appear to love it, judging by the sound. 

We stopped by this area on the way to the area called Phase 8, where the flinger was, uh, flinging gravel onto about two square miles of the lakebed. That costs the LADWP $200,000 a day — one reason the utility has delayed using gravel all of these years. 

Adams told me it costs about $30 million a square mile to apply gravel four inches down. Water use costs $1.5 million a square mile a year. Over time, the value of that initial investment changes. "In about 12-15 years, gravel becomes less expensive," Adams says. "So it's more expensive up front, cheaper in the long run." 

But Adams also said the DWP wants to find cheaper methods than gravel or watering with bubblers. And, he implied, more sustainable ones. Maybe like the Owengeti. Maybe like tillage, the more socially acceptable cousin to "moat-and-row" (a public debacle for the DWP some years back). Deeper and wider than moat-and-row, tillage means using a blade to cut into the clay layer of the sediment on the lake bed, turning it up to hold down the dust. Adams indicated he'd like to see that method approved as a control measure, which would imply further conversations with the State Lands Commission. Even letting lakebed look like the Owengeti would require permission. 

"If you look out on this vantage point you can see the birds. So what we'd like to do is promote this and make this better. We believe we can enhance this habitat that wants to happen, and trade this off for areas where we have a lot of water that's standing." That water's just costing the citizens of LA money, he says. "There's no environmental benefit from it." Adams said this would enable DWP to "save nature, save the lake, control the dust, and save the water all at the same time. And it's possible. That's what we're trying to head toward."