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Owens Valley Water Wars Heat Up Again

Dust coming off the Owens Lake lakebed | Photo: Environmental Protection Agency

Most Angelenos are familiar at least in passing with the story of how the Department of Water and Power (DWP) essentially dewatered Owens Lake so as to fill the growing city's water mains in 1913 and after. What they may not know is that the story isn't over. In November, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) ruled that according to data from lakebed monitors, the DWP was solely responsible for the horrendous air quality in the Owens Valley caused by dust blowing off the dry lake.

DWP's response? They're trying to get rid of the monitors.

The water diversions, which forever altered the environment in the Owens Valley, are the Original Sin in Los Angeles' creation myth. Environmentalists and regulators have spent much of the last half century trying to make DWP address some of the mess it's created in the Valley. Once a wildlife-rich saline lake ranging from 20-60 feet deep and around 110 square miles in extent, Owens Lake -- or its desiccated lakebed -- is now the nation's largest single point source of particulate matter pollution.

In November, the California Air Resources Board ruled that despite DWP's grudging release of enough water to wet much of the lakebed, thus controlling dust, just under three square miles of unwetted lakebed still released copious amounts of so-called "PM-10" pollution into the Owens Valley airshed, threatening the health of residents from Bishop to Ridgecrest.

The ruling was seen as vindication for the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (APCD), which has maintained for years that the vast majority of the District's PM-10 problem can be traced to DWP's water diversions. Predictably, DWP disagrees. In a lawsuit filed in the US District Court Eastern District of California in early November in which DWP protests APCD dust control orders, the utility refers to the prospect of allowing more water to reach Owens Lake to mitigate dust pollution as a "waste":

Specifically, the mitigation measures ordered by the District, through the APCO, require and thereby deprive the City of 95,000 acre-feet of water that is wasted to control dust on the Owens Lake bed. 95,000 acre-feet of water is more water than is consumed by the City of San Francisco in one year.

That lawsuit by DWP names the Great Basin APCD, CARB, the California State Lands Commission, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the EPA as defendants, claiming that the APCD has issued dust control orders capriciously while ignoring the Lands Commission and BLM, who own much of the lakebed. DWP's contention is that as owners of 10 square miles of the lakebed, the BLM and Lands Commission ought to be held responsible for controlling dust from that part of the lakebed. Which would be a compelling argument if not for the fact that DWP's dewatering is the reason any dust comes off of the lakebed anyway.

DWP also claims it ought to be able to cross-examine witnesses at evidentiary hearings held by the ACPD.

And now, in apparent response to CARB's reliance on data from air quality monitors to assess the origin of the Valley's horrendous PM-10 problem, DWP has sent an eviction notice to APCD for three of those monitors sited on leased DWP land. A letter sent to APCD November 29 by DWP's Director of Water Operations Martin Adams, and included in the board packet for APCD's Board meeting on December 13, orders the District to "peaceably vacate and discontinue use of Dirty Socks, Mill Site, and North Beach Monitor sites within 30 days of the date of this letter, or December 29 2012." Adams wrote that the three monitors "erroneously justify the issuance of numerous control orders," and that "LADWP will no longer allow the use of its land to support Great Basin's biased efforts to impose sole responsibility for controlling dust in the Owens Valley on it. [sic]"

The move might have gone unnoticed in the world outside the Owens Valley were it not for the reporting of independent journalist Benett Kessler at local news outlet Sierra Wave.

It's unlikely that DWP's petulant move will help it much, in the long run. APCD will likely find replacement sites for the three air quality monitors. And this latest gambit comes in the context of a legal and administrative quarrel that puts DWP on one side and the APCD, CARB, the EPA, the BLM and the California Lands Commission on the other.

Besides which, evicting the air quality monitors sends a clear signal that DWP knows the more data society has, the more likely we'll decide DWP is responsible for the problem. Clamping down on more data is what you do when you know you're wrong.

More importantly in the long term, though, the ratepayers in whose interests DWP claims to be acting are very different from those who first welcomed Owens River water to the L.A. Basin. Los Angeles has become one of the more environmentally conscious cities in the nation, sympathetic to wildlife and water conservation issues and keenly aware of the effect of PM-10 pollution on society's most vulnerable people.

No one likes to pay higher water bills, but if DWP thinks its Los Angeles ratepayers are on board with being used as an excuse not to act responsibly in the Owens Valley, the utility may well be in for a big surprise.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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