The Design Observer Group

Posted 01.24.11

Karen Piper

Dreams, Dust and Birds: The Trashing of Owens Lake

Historic photo of Los Angeles Aqueduct
Construction of the Jawbone siphon of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 1912. [courtesy of the Joseph Barlow Lippincott collection, UC Berkeley Water Resources Center Archives]

Manufacturing Dust
The dry bed of what was once Owens Lake contains the detritus of Los Angeles’s fantasies. Starting in 1913, the City of Los Angeles, which historian Kevin Starr has called “the most exquisite invented garden in history,” gradually drained the enormous lake, located two hundred miles to the north of the city. [1] It was a monumental act of engineering: an aqueduct was constructed and then, like a garden hose that was picked up and moved, the Owens River was shifted, so that instead of watering Owens Lake it was watering Los Angeles. In this way the Owens River also began to supply an emerging area called “Hollywoodland,” its water used to create, in the arid landscape of Southern California, a version of the English Lake District. The river fed by the lake supplied 100 percent of Los Angeles’s water, and as a result the 110-square-mile lake gradually dried up and became a howling wasteland of toxic dust. The farmers of Owens Valley fought tenaciously to keep their lake and their river, even resorting to dynamiting the aqueduct (a drama depicted in Chinatown). But they lost.

I grew up near Owens Lake, and I breathed in its dust for close to 20 years. I remember that the experience of walking on the lakebed felt like walking on the moon, with its white crusty surface pocked by shadowy craters and peaks of crumbling crystallized salt. Unfortunately, this dust is not the kind that you can simply breathe out. It has been shown to embed itself in the lungs for life, and it is carcinogenic. In 1987 the Environmental Protection Agency declared Owens lakebed to be the worst dust pollution problem in the United States, affecting around 50,000 people. By then the dangers of this kind of fine dust were well known. But it's a complicated story, of course, and to those of us who have followed it — lived it — the decision about whom to help and whom to hurt had already been made, decades ago. In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt decided that the waters of Owens River should go to Los Angeles because the city was where it would do the “greatest good for the greatest number.” “This water is more valuable to the people as a whole,” he said, “if used by the city than if used by the people of the Owens Valley.” [2] Over the decades the people of the Owens Valley came to understand that the “people as a whole” did not include us.

So when in the late '80s the EPA mandated that the City of Los Angeles fix the problem of the Owens Valley, and do so within ten years, this came as a surprise. But the ensuing events suggest that the kind of engineering ingenuity that had once made it possible to move the waters was unavailable decades later for the equally large-scale job of remediating the damage that had been done. To start with, the city fought against the EPA ruling; it did not want to give back any water, and over several years it proposed various methods to control the dust. The L.A. Department of Water and Power suggested coating the lakebed with sewage, or treated solid waste; it suggested layering the lakebed with tires; it considered spraying chemicals on its surface, and experimented with several, all of which were found to increase rather than relieve the toxicity of the lakebed. The DWP next offered to cover the lakebed with gravel, but this was judged too expensive. Finally, a regional authority — the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District — decided to force the City to return water to Owens Lake — to install a sprinkler system, with the ultimate aim of seeding and irrigating plots of salt grass. [3] By this time almost a decade had passed, millions of dollars had been spent on false starts, and the people around Owens Lake, realizing the dangers, had been steadily leaving.

Keeler Beach, Owens Lake
A sign in Keeler, California, reads, "This beautiful setting provided by the L.A. Water Dept. Please wear your hazmat suits at all times! Safe beach. Best dust!" [by Tom Hilton]

This is how it came to be that in 1998 time had run out for the City of Los Angeles: it was now legally required to implement a remediation plan or pay a penalty of $10,000 per day. Duly focused, the city contracted with the engineering consulting firm CH2M Hill to build the dust control project. The early results were not promising. Never mind that CH2M Hill — recipient of one of the no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq — has been described by social activist Naomi Klein as a specialist in “disaster profiteering.” [4] When the firm's earthmovers rolled out onto Owens lakebed, they promptly got sucked into the earth. Commenting on the progress of the project, a DWP representative could only say: “This year, they’re just pulling their equipment out of the mud.” [5] Eventually the company needed to requisition trucks with special tires and to construct elevated platforms to keep the trucks from getting stuck. Faulty equipment was not the only problem. Salt from the newly planted salt grass was clogging the plumbing and sprinklers of the newly installed irrigation equipment, which caused crusts to form on the lakebed surface, which in turn produced yet more dust; and salt was being leached into the shallow water table, which then rose and killed the salt grass. For Los Angeles, Owens lakebed had become, literally and metaphorically, a quagmire. Today the city remains responsible for ameliorating the dust storms — an obligation that might push it into bankruptcy.

Killing Birds
The last time I was home, I drove out onto the lakebed, which by then had been gridded into sections that contained either rows of drip-irrigated salt grass or “bubblers” that sprayed water onto the surface. Raised gravel roads criss-crossed these sections — called “T-cells,” as if to signify that they were fighting to restore the lake’s health — and massive trucks were going to and fro. It was as if a city were being built. None of the truckers minded me, a woman in a white Kia, taking photographs, and they were grateful I got out of their way on the narrow gravel roads. It was then, at each stop, that I began to notice what had become, along with the dust, another big problem: the return of the birds.

The water wars of Southern California are well documented. Less well known is the story of the birds — the birds which once inhabited Owens Lake by the millions, and which lost their habitat when the lake was drained over the decades. On September 24, 1917, a visiting zoologist, Joseph Grinnell, wrote in his field notes, “Great numbers of water birds are in sight along the lake shore — avocets, phalaropes, ducks. Large flocks of shorebirds in flight over the water in the distance . . . now silvery now dark, against the gray-blue of the water. There must be literally thousands of birds within sight of this one spot.” [6] Of all that I've seen at Owens Lake, the return of the birds — and they are returning in droves to this place on the Pacific flyway — has been the most surreal. For me the birds seemed to belong to a mythological past, to the era when steamboats plied the lake, delivering silver from the mines in the Sierras to the factories of Los Angeles. I got out to photograph birds in shallow pools all over the lake — beautiful American avocets, with their red bodies and black bills, and shy snowy plovers, which nest riskily on the sides of roads.

Dust control pond, Owens Lake playa
Halobacteria tints the salt crust of a dust control pond on the Owens Lake playa. [by Barry Lehrman]

The problem for the birds is that they might actually use the new water sources that are once again attracting them to the lake. As I went deeper onto the lakebed, I began to notice that some of the water was green, and some red, and some blue or transparent. I knew that the red was evidence of algae, though I was unsure what the other colors indicated. To prevent water from pooling to the lakebed center, the contractors had built a network of mud berms that separated the sections and caused each to have a different mineral content and thus a different color. For the birds these colorful pools are like the pink and blue pills from Alice in Wonderland — they might make you strong or they might make you die. In 2003, twenty gulls were found dead on the lakebed, diagnosed with “elevated brain sodium.” Other birds showed “elevated mercury, selenium, cadmium, or other metals relative to screening levels.” The Air Pollution Control District also found elevated levels of arsenic, boron and barium in the water, as well as barium, lead and mercury in snowy plover and avocet eggs. And more: while hundreds of gulls have nested on the lakebed, all of the chicks but one have been killed by predatory birds. [7] The story of the dying birds became particularly poignant when the Audubon Society declared Owens Lake one of the 17 most important avian sanctuaries in California, and a “globally important wetland in the making.” [8] Birdwatchers were invited to the lake to count birds, and in one day counted 112 bird species and 46,000 birds.

For the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the problem of these birds is that they exist at all. The birds of Owens lakebed are protected by the North American Migratory Birds Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to disturb their nesting sites. The DWP has been fighting to turn off the water to the lakebed every year, from July, when the dust season ends, to October. But July also happens to be snowy plover nesting season, and without water the chicks would die. [9] As a compromise, the DWP has agreed to maintain 1,000 acres in perpetuity for shorebirds — this despite the fact that the snowy plover habitat is estimated to be 46,932 acres. [10] To add to the regulatory pressure, the state has mandated that the city maintain a baseline level of plovers — specifically 272 adult plovers. So I think: what about those birds that happen to land in the wrong place, on any of those extra 45,932 acres? What happens to bird #273?

Owens Lake alkali flats
Alkali flats in the Owens Valley. [with permission from Shutterfly]

As I drove deeper onto the lake in my white Kia, I decided to try to find an area near the center, where the Los Angeles DWP performs “experiments” with dust control — its own little Area 51. This site — officially, Area A1-4 — is difficult to find, almost as if hiding from the criticism it knows it will provoke. Here is where the DWP tinkers, looking for ways to control the dust without water and thus to stop the treaty-protected birds from returning. The DWP’s latest experiment, called “Moat & Row,” consists of tall plastic-mesh “sand fences” planted next to trough-like “moats": the idea is that the fences would capture blowing sand that would then settle in the moats.

Of course, this raised the question of what to do with the sand that collected in the moats and fences. The DWP claimed that it would “remove sand from the moats and place it in the dump trucks, which would then transport the material and place it in a shallow flood pond,” and then, apparently, hope that it would sink to the bottom. But if, the report continued, “the depth of the pond is too shallow to allow the dumping of sand, then the sand would be spread throughout the pond to the extent necessary to maintain a water layer over the sand.” To deal with the sand along the fences, the DWP claimed, “Sand built up against the fence would be removed using an excavator, dump trucks, and pick-up trucks supported by a bulldozer to extricate equipment stuck in the mud and a water truck to control fugitive dust emissions.” [11] "Moat & Row" sounded, in short, expensive. Nevertheless, I was excited about the prospect, perhaps only because of the treasure hunt involved in finding it. So I was disappointed to arrive at the center of the lakebed and discover that “Moat & Row” was being torn down, apparently a failure. As it turned out, the fences were providing good perches for predators, like hawks, to swoop in and eat bird eggs; and besides, there was the potential for “entrapment within moats” of the snowy plover. [12]

Top: Owens Lake and the Sierra Nevada. [by Satoshi Nakagawa] Bottom left: Moat and Row dust control at Owens Lake. [by Karen Piper] Bottom right: The author's white Kia. [by Karen Piper]

Fantasizing Solar
Shortly after my visit to the lakebed, I heard that the City of Los Angeles had already started on its next “experiment”: solar panels. The DWP director, David Freeman, had decided that rather than "waste" good city water in dust control, the agency would install solar panels on the lakebed. [13] “So you’d have a double win," Freeman said. "You’d create solar power and control the dust without wasting water.” The DWP Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the pilot project, which they predicted would eventually supply ten percent of the city’s power. [14] What's more, they envisioned an enormous “Solar Park” in the desert, covering 40 to 80 square miles, nearly the entire lakebed. Everyone seemed behind the idea, and ABC News announced: “Despite a serious drought, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has to pump fresh water into the desert, because of a court settlement. Now the DWP is looking for non-water alternatives to control the dust.” [15] According to Jim McDaniel of the DWP, “There is nothing in the agreement that would allow us to not meet our obligation in a drought year. We have a legal obligation to control the dust. . . . I could certainly think of . . . other things I’d rather be doing with that water.” [16] The DWP allocated $500 million to the solar panel project, as much as had already been spent on the entire dust mitigation project. The agency also requested that the State waive an environmental review, claiming that the need for renewable energy was more important than the remediation of the lakebed. [17]  

Again, I was saddened that the birds of Owens lakebed might have their water supply turned off for good. Secretly, I was hoping that Mexico would sue in an international court of law. But I also knew that Los Angeles likes to dream, and that its engineering companies like to dream, and I knew that their dreams often turn to dust at Owens Lake. As Richard Cervantes, chairman of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, once said, “In my personal opinion, they’ll never build a massive array of solar panels out there on the lake bed. It’s too expensive. Some people say it would compare with the building of the pyramids in ancient Egypt.” [18]

So it was not surprising that in July 2010 the press reported the failure of the solar panel project: “Preliminary engineering tests show that if solar panel platforms were placed at the southern end of the nearly dry 110-square-mile Owens Lake, they would sink as much as several inches into extremely corrosive soil.” [19] And as they sank, it seemed, the salty sand would scrape off the silicon surface of the panels. Thus the year-long $500-million fantasy of a giant Solar Park collapsed as quickly as it had been dreamed up . . . though ideas do have a way of re-circulating on Owens lakebed, along with money and water.

Los Angeles Aqueduct
Los Angeles Aqueduct at Owens Lake. [by Calwest via Flickr]

And so Owens lakebed, like a mini war zone, seems to exert an endless capacity to absorb meaning and money. According to the Los Angeles DWP, the cost of fixing the first 43 square miles of dust was $540 million. [20] This does not include the cost of maintenance, estimated at $17.5 million per year, or the cost of water that the DWP must purchase from Northern California or Arizona to replace the one-third of Owens River now pumped onto the lake, which is about $24 million per year. [21] And it does not cover the upcoming costs of mitigating areas still not in compliance for dust control. The City has already spent close to a billion dollars trying to stop the dust, but it has still not stopped the dust, and Owens Valley has never achieved the 24-hour dust-control standard mandated by the federal Clean Air Act. [22]

And there is still the problem of birds, which, to the DWP, means more dollars wasted.

When Owens Lake was drained, its diverted waters sparked a sense of euphoria, a belief in the possibility of eternal growth, an undaunted optimism in the future of Los Angeles. This same water enabled the creation of the studio sets for countless movies, from Singing in the Rain to The Poseidon Adventure. Historically, the Department of Water and Power made so much money from selling nearly free Owens River water that it became a source of cash for the City of Los Angeles. Until recently, the DWP has contributed more than $200 million per year to the municipal budget from its profits. There is no clearer link between water and money than the path from Owens Lake to Los Angeles. Owens Lake made L.A. rich.

But in 2010, for the first time, the DWP threatened to withhold its contribution unless the City Council would approve another rate hike. (And this was after rates in Los Angeles had already risen by 30 percent, largely due to the ill-fated dust control plans.) Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urged the City Council to approve the rate hike, arguing that not to do so “would be the most immediate and direct route to bankruptcy the city could pursue.” [23] The City, it seems, cannot afford to survive without a never-ending supply of seemingly free water. Los Angeles once dreamed itself, and its wealth, its lawns and gardens, its movies and studios, out of the waters of Owens Lake. But ultimately Owens lakebed may suck the city into a vortex of environmental catastrophe, and of endlessly expensive remediation. It is yet to be seen whether the birds of Owens Lake or the City of Los Angeles will win the battle for survival; that is, for water. Perhaps the birds and the city can learn to co-exist. Still, like a reckless Angeleno waking up after an all-night party in Hollywood, the City now has to clean up in the morning. And no one likes doing that.