Posted on | March 6, 2012 | 11 Comments
After suppressing 90% of Owens Valley dust caused by a century of Los Angeles siphoning Eastern Sierra water, the LA Department of Water & Power has sued to stop further remediation work. The move under sophomore DWP general manager Ron Nichols appears to be part of a greater strategy to increase water exports while leaving the affected rural communities tied up in court. The shift under Nichols marks a sharp reversal of the largely good neighbor policy pursued by the four preceding general managers to have served since 2005 under LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
As background, diversion of water from Owens River starting in 1913 soon left what was once the crystalline Owens Lake a roughly 100-square-mile, largely dry playa whose sand and salts are whipped aloft each year by winter and spring gales. By the 1980s, billowing dust from the dry lakebed made Owens Valley the source of the worst “particulate matter” air pollution in the US, 130 times higher than levels permitted under federal guidelines. Contained in the swarming grit was not just high desert sand, but also arsenic, salt and cadmium.
Forced by lawsuits along with federal and state intervention, eleven years ago LADWP began a series of dust suppression measures in Owens Valley. Strategic flooding of the lake bed, planting it with salt grass and dumping gravel have since contained fugitive dust from 40 of roughly 46.5 square miles identified so far by the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District as the most volatile areas. According to the district, the measures have successfully contained 90% of the dust emissions. Arguing its case in a recent press release, the LADWP claims to be closing in on 96% containment. But suppressing the dust has also forced Los Angeles to leave roughly a third of its target mountain water behind and, according to the DWP, cost ratepayers a billion dollars.
How much of this billion was wasted has never been spelled out. Little is known about the upshot of a 2008 lawsuit brought by the second of the current mayor’s succession of now five DWP general managers against the city’s own engineering consultants. But contractual beefs aside, back in Owens Valley, a billion dollars seems cheap. In a press release countering DWP’s claims, the officer in charge of the Owens Valley air pollution control district pointed out that the rate being paid by DWP is one-fifth the price deemed cost-effective by LA’s own local South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Why the sudden cynicism putting urban dollars over rural lungs? The answer seems to be that classic LA cocktail of money and water. In a rain and snowpack year likely to return California to official drought status, LA wants to redirect at least some of the current 29 billion gallons of water presently employed in Owens Valley dust suppression to the aqueduct that Mulholland built. Lest anyone doubt DWP’s sudden taste for hardball, since former energy broker Ron Nichols was appointed DWP general manager little more than a year ago, the DWP has even filed suit against the Eastern Sierra ski resort of Mammoth, arguing that LA owns the water in a creek supplying 50% of the town’s water. This though yearly water use by Mammoth is less than the estimated sprinkler overflow from parkway strips into storm drains in ten summer days in greater Los Angeles.
As an upshot of the sudden litigiousness from LA, look for further remediation to be stalled in court for years while DWP lawyers are likely to demand quid pro quo measures from the rural residents of the Eastern Sierra along the lines of: Keep your puny allocation from Mammoth Creek, lose six square miles of dust control that might cost four times the water.
Civic mindedness seems to have gone by the wayside as LA Mayor Villaraigosa has given a businessman a water manager’s job. Jaws dropped in February when at an Eastern Sierra meeting the DWP’s Nichols said, “Legal fees pale in comparison to the cost of dust control.” Within days, Nichols’ department had served Owens Valley air managers with a writ announcing that the DWP intended to stop any further dust remediation. According to the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, as LA’s lawyers move in, dust pollution in Owens Valley stands at ten times the accepted federal level. The top photo, taken today, comes as winter winds mobilized the sand and salts of the un-treated remaining 10% of the dry lakebed.
For updates, follow Aquafornia, the newsfeed of the Water Education Foundation. Click here for a slide-show recounting the history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct that tapped the Eastern Sierra by Aquafornia editor Chris Austin.
Correction: The original version of this post said that Mammoth’s yearly withdrawal of 3,000 acre feet of water from Mammoth Creek was the equivalent of estimated parkway run-off from sprinklers etc of one summer day in greater Los Angeles. The correct estimate is 10 summer days.