Less Water, Fewer Dollars: LADWP's Latest Eastern Sierra Proposal

Owens Lake. | Photo: sandy.redding/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power officials yesterday proposed ending a costly, decade-old practice of dumping 95,000 acre feet of drinkable water every year into a dry lake bed that would otherwise be stricken with dust storms 200 miles north of L.A..

The city is required under state law to control dust in Owens Valley, and has been responsible for mitigating dust over 45 acres of the lake bed. The Department of Water and Power's diversion of water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles beginning a century ago is blamed for Owens Lake's current drained state.

However, utility officials have said the practice is wasteful and expensive, and often point out the amount of water being used every year to control the dust is more than the amount consumed in San Francisco every year.

DWP officials presented a $600 million to $1 billion plan to use "environmentally sensitive" dust control methods they said would cut water use in half. The project also includes preserving and introducing new wildlife habitat to the lake bed, which officials said could have the added benefit of turning it into a tourist attraction.

Officials proposed using brine water, which has a high salt content, because it works better to control dust and tends not to evaporate. They also suggested covering the river bed with gravel, and introducing landscaping features that include curving ridges and tillage to allow for drainage and topographic relief.

"Investment in these waterless and low-water dust mitigation measures is a major financial commitment, but the value of this investment will ultimately be recouped over many years from the reduced inefficient waste of water when other methods work equally well," DWP Senior Assistant General Manager James McDaniel said.

Customers will bear the costs of this project, he added, "but it is a rational long-term solution that will benefit the Owens Valley, the Bay Delta via reduced demands on Northern California water supplies, and ultimately Los Angeles water customers."

The project will be split up into five phases, each introducing a a new wildlife habitat suitable for diving waterbirds, breeding, and migrating shorebirds and waterfowl, and Alkali Meadow vegetation.

"The decade-long LADWP dust control program has come at a steep price for the environment, as measured by wasted drinking water," said DWP General Manager Ron Nichols, who added that "more than 50 percent of the drinking water flowing through the L.A. Aqueduct is now diverted to environmental mitigation efforts in the Owens Valley."

Los Angeles water customers' water bills are higher because of the dust control measures, with 15 percent of the bills resulting directly from the costs of directing water into the lake bed, Nichols said.

DWP officials said they have been working for the past three years with stakeholders, local and state agencies and environmental organizations on an Owens Lake Master Plan, and said they will begin presenting this latest project to state and federal officials and begin an environmental review process.

The DWP sued the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District in October after the state-controlled regulator issued new orders to control dust in Owen Valley. Utility officials called the orders illegal, unreasonable and water-wasting, and claimed that the Owens Valley experienced high dust levels long before water was diverting to Los Angeles.

More on Owens Lake from KCET
- Where the Water Comes From: Owning -- And Owing -- the Owens Valley
- Forget Chinatown, Get the Real Story of California's Most Famous Water War
- AgH2O: Silver, Water, and Pinhole Camera in a Silo

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