Suffocating The Desert: L.A.'s Need for Water Hurts Others

Dust storm on the Owens Lake playa | Photo: Laura Hamilton/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The skin of the desert has been peeled away. It is aloft, and it chokes those of us who breathe here. Each scrape from each stray plow or dozer, each square foot of exposed lakebed with the water siphoned off, each section of desert deemed to be more useful as a blank square mile ends up as dust in the air. It hangs in our skies. It collects in our lungs. It kills us by increment, and someone else benefits.

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My life has been shortened by living here. I have been sick. For the past eight months I have mostly woken in coughing fits. My abdominal muscles ache from it. My body heals itself as best it can, but the slightest cold, the slightest cloud of vapor from a gas pump that would cause a short moment of choking before I moved here, and I'm off again for weeks. It doesn't take much dust. One day in a month, perhaps, of the blue sky replaced by khaki and that sick metallic, greasy smell is all it takes.

You might come visit for a weekend at a time and never see the dust. You might never get the feeling in running your fingers through your hair that they come away coated in talcum and static electricity. You might never find yourself wondering if that trip to the grocery store might cost you a day's work in lung spasms.

Stay here for more than a couple weeks and you will know the feeling.

Dust was in court last week, or it least dust's advocates at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) were in court, hearing their lawsuit against the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District get thrown out on a technicality. LADWP is concerned that taking action to keep alkaline dust from blowing off the Owens Lake bed, which it dried out by stages over the last century, would be -- in words LADWP uses over and over again -- "a waste of water."

Before LADWP diverted the water that fed it Owens Lake was a thriving habitat for wildlife, and the valley that surrounded it a healthy place to live. After LADWP got through with it, Owens Lake became the single largest point source of dust pollution in the United States. LADWP was forced in the courts to reduce the dust coming off the lakebed by 90 percent, and it's still the largest single point source of dust in the country.

News stories refer to the water LADWP ought to be leaving in the lake as "drinking water," thus redefining a crucial part of the environment as an industrial product, rather like writing a story on whaling and referring to the whales as "dog food." The proper purpose of drinking water, after all, is to flow out of a tap and into your glass. Never mind the habitat it once supported, and never mind the long-term health effects on the residents of Inyo County. Letting that "drinking water" stay in the river would be a "waste." Kids falling behind in their learning because they keep missing school because they can't breathe is just business as usual. Desert people buy HEPA air filters for their homes and replace their windows with double-glazed ones, and if that doesn't work they rack up hospital bills: LADWP's indirect contribution to the local economy. LADWP states that the amount of water they're being asked to leave in the lake to cover a remaining three miles of lakebed is more than San Francisco uses, and that fact's trotted out in the full confidence that no one will turn that equation on its head: so much water is taken from the Owens River ecosystem that it dwarfs the water consumption of entire cities.

It isn't just water taken from the desert that fouls our air, as I've written here before. Build thousands of acres of solar generating capacity on the desert and the dust will blow off those thousands of acres. It doesn't matter whether the land is cleared completely, or whether the company takes great public pains to preserve some percentage of the vegetation in some form. And even though wind development should, in theory, disturb a lower percentage of the land it's built on, there's a problem there as well:

Sources of dust in the desert are many and diverse. In my neighborhood, relatively far from the alkali dust off Owens Lake, the problem is worst when the wind blows from the direction of the Johnson Valley off-road vehicle area. In Imperial County it's agriculture. In the Coachella Valley it's often sprawl construction. Just about any large-scale activity in the desert can kick up dust to settle in the lungs of those of us who live here. There are hundreds of causes and hundreds of actors.

On good days I see the air quality control boards' rulings, the signs on construction sites providing phone numbers for dust complaints, the control measures and the windbreak fences, and I feel like most people actually want to do the right thing to control this pervasive desert health hazard.

But I haven't had a good day in a while. Instead, I have days in which I read that a major publicly owned utility thinks protecting desert dwellers' health is a waste, compared to their ability to fill the leaking mains, dripping faucets, and decorative water features of the city. Having your ability to breathe deemed less important than the right of urbanites to keep and bear obsolete green lawns does something to your self-esteem.

Days like this I have trouble imagining the desert as anything more than a resource colony. Our water, our sun, our wind are harnessed for the benefit of people on the outside. Our payment? You're choking in it.

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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Very touching, but full of factual errors. The desert is a dusty place and man didn't make it that way. Is it worse at times because of humans? Sure, but that pic of a dust storm on Owens Lake is nothing compared with all the naturally occurring dust a whole lot of people dealt with the last couple weeks. You write as if the desert would be year-round clear skies if it was not for human activity. Seriously? Face it... You chose to live in the dustiest type of environment on earth, so when you complain about everyone who lives in a city affecting your health, don't forget to include mother nature.

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Obviously the desert is a severely dusty location but this does not give reason to overlook significant depletion of surface water due to human activity, an occurrence that has happened and is happening all over the world. I am concerned about the future of Southern California's air quality as the Salton Sea dries up since the dust will be picked up and carried long distances.

The Aral Sea is another prime example of a vast body of water disappearing over a mere few decades! This is a much bigger issue than people simply choosing to live in a dusty location, this is OUR air quality being tainted due to our careless management of a precious resource.

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Here are some more "facts" to chew on regarding the Owens Valley and the LADWP: http://www.swhydro.arizona.edu/archive/V3_N4/feature4.pdf

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Is the dust in the Owens Lake bed more toxic than your average desert dust? I had heard that was the case with the sediments at the bottom of the Salton Sea, but of course those came from a different direction.