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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Owens Valley Restoration, Pt. 2: Owens Lake

Air Date: Week of

The Owens Lake in Central California dried out decades ago after Los Angeles shipped the water across the desert to feed its growing population. Dust from the lake bed is the worst source of particulate air pollution in the country. But now, LA is under court order to control the dust. Robin White reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Los Angeles owns most of the land in California's Owens Valley, and diverts almost all the water from there. But the city has lost a string of legal battles, and is now being forced to restore water to some of the areas it sucked dry. Mono Lake is coming back, and the lower Owens River, dry since Los Angeles took its water in 1913, is expected to flow again in 2002. In the second part of his series on the restoration of Owens Valley, Robin White reports that another problem is about to be addressed: air pollution from the parched Owens Lake bed.


WHITE: When the wind picks up at the dry Owens Lake, a toxic mix of salt and clay gets lofted into the air. Los Angeles diverted water from the Owens River 250 miles to the coast, and the lake that used to be at the end of the river dried up in 1924. Now the lake bed is the worst source of particulate air pollution in the U.S. and ruins air quality sometimes as far away as Los Angeles itself. Locals complain of a persistent hacking they call the Owens Valley cough.


WHITE: There's not much around here, just a few ghost towns left over from the days of silver mining. No more than 100 people live in Keeler, on the old lake shore. It's a few houses, a few trailers, and some dead cars.

RICE: When you drive by here on your way to Death Valley, and you look at this town, you're almost afraid to come through here because you don't know what kind of people live here. We're just normal folks, and we've got to breathe just like everybody else.

WHITE: Paul Rice moved to Keeler 10 years ago. He smoked most of his life, and he has asthma. He knew this part of the desert could be dusty, but he wasn't prepared for what comes off the dry Owens Lake.

RICE: Keeler, when it has a dust storm, you don't want to be here. You come inside, you close your doors, you put your cooler on, try to filter out as much of it as you can. When it's finished, you come and dust your house.

WHITE: Now, after years of litigation, the local air district has won a ruling. Los Angeles must bring the lake bed into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. Beginning at the end of 2001, the city will face thousands of dollars of fines daily if it doesn't begin to correct the dust problem. Agronomist Karla Scheidlinger works for a company hired by Los Angeles to help find a solution.

(Wheels over terrain)

WHITE: Out on the lake bed it's 107 degrees, and she's coaxing her four-wheel drive through the sand to an experimental farm plot.

SCHEIDLINGER: Isn't this fun.

WHITE: The gleaming white lake bed is like a scene out of Star Trek. It has violent electrical storms, and once Karla Scheidlinger fell into quicksand up to her neck. It's not a friendly place for vegetation, either.

(Water drops fall)

WHITE: Ms. Scheidlinger is using drip irrigation to leach enough salt out of the soil to grow grass.

SCHEIDLINGER: If you can grow anything out of salinity on the scale of five to eight, you're doing really well. Our soils out here start at about 120. So, for salt grass, if I can get that down into a 20 to 40 range, I'm pretty happy.

WHITE: Los Angeles hopes the salt grass will anchor the dust, but getting it established will take longer than the city has before the fines begin. So they're going to pour on water, 50,000 acre-feet a year. But Los Angeles is a city in a desert. It doesn't have water of its own, so the Water Department is scraping around for other sources. One proposal was to pump ground water out from under the lake bed to use on the surface. That unleashed a storm of protest not unlike a dust storm on the Owens Lake on a bad day. Not good for Los Angeles. Department of Water and Power manager David Freeman says the city is trying to fix a hundred-year history of bad relations with Owens Valley residents.

FREEMAN: They're understandably uptight about that issue, and we're trying to make peace, not war. So, we will find some water that is clearly not putting their groundwater at risk. And over time, I think that when this confidence-building exercise grows and grows, we may find that there are sources of groundwater that wouldn't hurt anyone's well or deplete the resources up there that could be used, also.

WHITE: In the meantime, L.A. is in a bit of a bind. The city's charter makes it difficult to take water out of the aqueduct without a two-thirds vote of the people. Officials admit they don't know how they're going to solve the problem, but say that one way or another the water will be there by the deadline. Even then, critics say they may not be able to completely control the dust just by damping down the trouble spots. Dust storms on the hundred-square-mile lake can start anywhere, depending on the wind direction. Some say the focus on fixing the dust overlooks the one surefire solution: re-filling the lake.

HERBST: I consider myself somebody who is maybe a lonely voice right now, saying there's something missing here.

WHITE: Dave Herbst is an aquatic biologist at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab.

HERBST: And the unfortunate thing is that for most people, Owens Lake has basically fallen off the map as a habitat.

(Bird song)

WHITE: Dave Herbst says the lake used to be a stopover for sometimes hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. He's been studying the small remnants of wetland that still surround the lake bed, and says the whole thing could be brought back just by adding water. But refilling the lake would take all the water that Los Angeles uses from the Owens Valley for 10 years. City officials say it's hard enough trying to find water just to keep the dust down.

(Bird song)

WHITE: For Living on Earth, I'm Robin White.



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