'Slake' Video Project Puts Heat on LADWP Over Owens Valley

The Owens River | Photo courtesy Slake

The story is part of Southern California's origin myth, Los Angeles' Original Sin: the Department of Water and Power took water from the Owens Valley to fuel the city's growth, dooming not only the desert landscape but its own. That story's usually told in the past tense, but it still unfolds today, a century later. And a forthcoming video series from the Owens Valley Committee (OVC) and Bristlecone Media intends to bring us all up to speed.

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The LADWP has made a few grudging concessions to the preservation of its Eastern Sierra water colonies in recent decades, starting with a 1994 decision by the State Water Resources Control Board that it was obligated to maintain the ecological health of Mono Lake north of Owens Valley.

The city agency started tapping the Mono Lake watershed in the 1940s: it seemed the natural extension of its aqueous acquisition of the Owens Valley a few decades before. By the time the state ordered the LADWP to save some water for Mono Lake and its tributary streams, Owens Lake to the south had been the single largest point source for particulate matter air pollution in the United States for more than a decade.

After a series of lawsuits as well as some arm-twisting by the federal and state governments, LADWP started to put some pollution control measures into place, reducing its water exports from the Owens Valley by about a third and experimenting with saltgrass plantings and gravel mulch as ways to keep some of the dust down. The agency says it has spent a billion dollars of its ratepayers' money controlling dust. That sounds like a lot of money. It is a lot of money. But it's being spent to control lot of pollution. The Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District estimates that the billion dollars LADWP's spent in dust control works out to an expenditure of $1,000 per ton over a period of 25 years. That's less than a fifth the cost per ton that the South Coast Air Quality Management District deems cost-effective for particulate matter pollution reduction. As Great Basin Unified's Ted Schade put it in an op-ed in 2012,

The South Coast AQMD (where Los Angeles is located) has set a feasible cost effectiveness limit of $5,300 per ton for PM control in its area. If Owens Lake were located in the San Fernando Valley, instead of the Owens Valley, LADWP would be expected to spend up to $5 billion to control the problem.

Nonetheless, LADWP is trying to find some way out of its arguable legal obligation to finish cleaning up the mess that Owens Lake has become, going so far as to sue the state of California, along with the state Air Resources Board, and the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, claiming that holding LADWP wholly responsible for the Owens Lake dust problem was unfair. One of LADWP's suits was tossed out on procedural grounds, though the judge that did so had some pointed observations about the agency trying to use the court system to escape its obligations.

In the meantime, dust pollution in the Owens Valley violates federal standards a couple dozen times a year, and the residents of the valley suffer for it -- including those residents whose forebears have been there for centuries.

And that's merely one of the largest issues with the continuing appropriation of water from the Eastern Sierra to fill the leaking taps and lawn sprinklers of Los Angeles. The people behind "Slake: Water and Power in the Eastern Sierra," put it bluntly:

Today, the LADWP, one of the largest utilities in the country with an annual budget of 4.8 billion dollars, continues its destructive water policies. Through excessive groundwater pumping, litigation, delay, and failure to honor its agreements, the agency continues to unleash damage to the ecosystem and residents of Inyo County, a county with 0.49 percent of the population of the City of Los Angeles.

Slake is a project of the activist group the Owens Valley Committee and film production company Bristlecone Media. When completed, Slake will consist of a series of five videos, each about ten minutes long, focusing on a particular aspect of the ongoing Owens Valley Water War.

Here's the trailer for the series, from the project's crowdfunding page:

Co-producer Jenna Cavelle, who's also behind the fascinating film Paya on Owens Valley Paiutes and their culture's relationship to water, hopes the videos will remedy the common conception that the Owens Valley Water War is dead history. "With so much media centered on the Aqueduct centenary, there's a tendency for folks to think of the water wars between L.A. and Owens Valley as a thing of the past. This is the great L.A. media lie. There are very real issues with very real consequences that Eastern Sierra folks live with every day, from unresolved water rights, to groundwater over-pumping, to Owens Lake dust storms, to drastic climate changes, to endangered pupfish species hanging in the balance."

"I hope that Slake will mobilize engagement with these issues," adds Cavelle. If Slake turns folks into activists on these issues, we'll have accomplished our mission."

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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