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LADWP takes state and federal air regulators to court over Owens Lake dust pollution

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

A long standing fight between the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and regulators over Owens Valley air pollution is now going to federal court. 

Each day, the DWP puts more than a Rose Bowl’s worth of water on Owens Lake's dry lake bed in the eastern Sierra. It does it to keep the dust down; state air regulators say LA is responsible for draining the lake and exposing coarse dust – called particulate matter – that causes environmental and health problems. (I reported on the dispute earlier this summer; the proceeding before the state Air Resources Board remains undecided.)

LA’s lawyers say the DWP uses too much water and spends too much money to control dust. They argue that the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District violated federal law when it set new air standards. And in a press release, DWP GM Ron Nichols sounds mad: 

"Los Angeles water consumers have devoted more than $1.2 billion over the last decade to controlling Owens Lake dust," said LADWP General Manager Ron Nichols. "And we have achieved exactly what we agreed to do and were required to do by Great Basin. As we wrap up our obligations, the local regulator moves the goal posts, making up his own interpretation of the law without accountability to even his own board. Great Basin seeks to force L.A. to spend hundreds of millions more to reduce dust that the City did not create -- all while requiring LA to fund 90% of his entire agency's operating costs, including staff salaries, pension system and paying his outside lawyers at the rate of $750 an hour. Enough is enough." 

LADWP maintains it would like to explore new modes of dust control. State agencies have countered that they're not opposed to that happening, but they would like to see proof that the new control measures work as well as what's currently allowed. 

Now the Department of Water and Power has filed a new lawsuit. It argues in part that the state law that created regulators to oversee the DWP’s pollution reduction efforts in the Owens Valley is preempted by federal law. (In a sign the DWP's stepping up its PR game on Owens Lake, there's a Q & A on the page dedicated to this topic, as well as a video.)

Reached for comment, Great Basin executive officer Ted Schade said he first heard about the lawsuit from the press. A statement at the district's website accuses the DWP of trying to avoid legal responsibilities it undertook as recently as last year: 

"The DWP now sues every federal and state environmental agency, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Air Resources Board, and the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, to attempt to avoid its agreement and these legal requirements. 'The District has not yet had a chance to review the DWP's lawsuit' said Ted Schade, Air Pollution Control Officer for the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District. 'The DWP has broken its promises to the Owens Valley.'

Mr. Schade continued: 'The District believes its goals are shared by the people of the City of Los Angeles, that the DWP's need for water comes with a legal responsibility to protect the environment and the health of the communities it impacts.'"

DWP is essentially suing everybody. Great Basin, the state Air Resources Board, State Lands Commission, BLM, and the US EPA. That's a tall order. City lawyers have tended to be up against (respected) LA law firms doing pro bono work for the Great Basin folks, and sometimes the California Attorney General's office. This time around we're talking about getting the Department of Justice into the act, too.