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LADWP exec says Owens Dry Lake decision will cost Angelenos $400 million [Update]

LADWP's Marty Adams says Great Basin is moving the goalposts when it comes to controlling dust at Owens Lake.
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."
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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A state regulator has found that Los Angeles is responsible for dust pollution controls on the dry Owens Lake bed in a dispute between the city’s utility and regional air officials in the eastern Sierra. 

In a decision released late Monday, the executive officer of the California Air Resources Board turned back the L.A. Department of Water and Power’s appeal of an order from the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District. LADWP has taken steps to control dust on over 40 square miles of lakebed. In 2011, Great Basin ordered the utility to take care of an additional 2.86 square miles of land.

The DWP appealed the order almost a year ago. The utility’s general manager, Ron Nichols, said the regulator's decision was “not unexpected.”

“This decision doesn't change the fact that a common sense solution is needed to stop both the senseless waste of water in the Owens Valley and the orders by Great Basin that attempt to force LA water customers to pay to control for additional dust control for dust emissions that LADWP didn't cause,” he said in a statement released Tuesday.

Since the late 1990s, Los Angeles has accepted some responsibility for drying the lakebed when it diverted water from the Owens Valley in 1913. At issue in recent years is the extent to which LA believes it must control the swirling dust that whips over the lake, which the federal government regulates as a pollutant called fine particulate matter, or PM 10.  

Lawyers for the city of Los Angeles have raised questions in state and federal court about the authority of regional and state regulators to order controls. Most recently, L.A. brought claims against Great Basin, the state Air Resources Board, State Lands Commission and the federal Bureau of Land Management and  Environmental Protection Agency. That federal dispute continues. 

The LADWP blames the regional regulator that ordered dust controls, Great Basin, for costing Angelenos money and water. “Billions of gallons of drinking water continue to be wasted every year controlling dust on Owens Lake, despite non-water, or low-water options that can control dust,” said Nichols, who says the utility has spent $1.2 billion on pollution mitigation so far. Nichols argues that this most recent decision will cost Los Angeles another $400 million, and a public campaign led by the utility calls attention to what DWP calls "water waste." 

But Great Basin’s executive officer, Ted Schade, disagreed. “We do require them to spend money, given the fact that they’re required to do controls out there, and those controls are expensive,” he said. “But with regard to water, the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District doesn’t require them to put one drop of water out there.”

Schade countered that while L.A. has chosen to use water to keep dust down, water is just one of three approved dust control methods.  “They can flood it with water, they can grow vegetation, or they can cover it with gravel. It doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “All three of those are equally effective.”

Two years ago, an experiment with a method called "moat and row" did not win approval from state authorites, though it attracted public attention because of its link to a possible solar panel farm. The DWP maintains that it still wants to explore new methods of dust control. "An environmentally preferable solution does exist, and can be implemented if the relevant state and federal agencies come together and work with LADWP," Nichols said. 

Buoyed by the Air Resources Board's decision, Schade sounded a more insistent tone. "I would hope that this decision...signals them that they do need to get busy and finish up the controls," he said. But he didn't close the door on negotiation. "Water resources are important, and we support their efforts to control water to the extent possible."

UPDATE, 1:30 PM: DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo writes that of the three approved dust control methods, two are difficult to use. Vegetation doesn't grow well over parts of the lake bed, and DWP maintains it's difficult to gain approval to use gravel because it offers little in the way of environmental benefits.