100 Years of Dust: Owens Lake and the Los Angeles Aqueduct
"100 Years of Dust: Owens Lake and the Los Angeles Aqueduct," documents the latest chapter in a century of legal battles over water rights and air quality in Owens Valley, California. Owens Lake lies in Southern California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, about 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles. This 110-square-mile lake began to dry up in 1913 when the City of Los Angeles diverted the Owens River into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The new water supply allowed Los Angeles to continue its rapid growth and turned the arid San Fernando Valley into an agricultural oasis, but at a tremendous environmental cost. By 1926, Owens Lake was a dry alkali flat, and its dust became the largest source of carcinogenic particulate air pollution in North America.
In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency mandated that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) take steps to minimize the toxic PM-10 dust pollution from Owens Dry Lake. At the time, this pollution was 100 times greater than federal air safety standards. LADWP began construction on the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Project in the year 2000. They have installed 45 square miles of dust mitigation zones, including gravel cover, managed vegetation, buried drip tubing, and irrigation bubblers to shallow flood the dry lakebed. This dust mitigation program has cost $1.3 billion to date and requires so much water that it may not be sustainable as climate change results in a drier climate for California, which is currently experiencing the worst drought in recorded history.
The sordid history of Owens Valley and the Los Angeles Aqueduct is an important cautionary tale about modern civilization and the ill-conceived hubris of our water engineering projects. We cannot afford to forget how delicately interconnected ecological systems are as we deal with the impacts of climate change. The LADWP of today has not learned the lessons of its past. They are trying to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of the LA Aqueduct—the largest aqueduct engineering project of it’s day—with a massive, expensive, and extremely high maintenance new environmental engineering project that is the largest of our day.