New Owens Valley Dust Battle Could Raise LA’s Water Bills

Even as drought and worsening drought force Los Angeles to end its heavy dependence on imported water, Angelenos may soon realize that weaning themselves off supplies from the rugged eastern Sierra Nevada doesn’t mean they’ll stop paying the price for the city’s long and complex history there.

That’s because, even if the city is able to fulfill a pledge by Mayor Eric Garcetti to recycle 100% of its water by 2035 and increase its capacity to capture rainwater, Los Angeles will still have to pay millions of dollars to control dangerous dust pollution in the area—the result of Ecological Los Angeles draining of Owens Lake over a century ago, as well as recent diversions that lowered the level of Mono Lake to the north.

Recently, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Energy accused air pollution authorities in the Owens Valley of “regulatory abuse” when it fined utilities $21 million for ignoring a dust control order on a 5-acre patch of dry lake bed. The DWP said the order and the subsequent fine imposed by the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District were an attempt to “squeeze” money from the city’s water users.

“Enough, that’s enough,” read a statement from Cynthia MacLean-Hill, chair of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Energy Commissioners. “More than 20 percent of our payers live below the poverty line, and we cannot allow Los Angeles residents to work as a blank check for illegal Great Basin orders.”

Cynthia McLean-Hill in 2019.

Cynthia McLean-Hill in 2019.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The agency also drew the ire of Mono Lake officials and conservationists recently when it signaled to the Los Angeles City Council that it wanted to scrap parts of a 1994 agreement aimed at controlling dust emissions in Mono Lake, the hyper-saline water body east of Yosemite National Park. It is famous for its tufa rock formations.

Arguing that climate change and drought had fundamentally altered the state’s water supply, DWP officials suggested that it was impossible for them to ensure Mono Lake would remain at certain levels of dust dampening.

DWP rate payers are sure to see increases due to the cost of transforming the city’s water infrastructure. However, officials say the Great Basin’s demands will add more to their water bills.

For their part, Owens Valley officials accused Los Angeles of trying to avoid liability for the environmental damage caused by their use of the water.

“The city wants to undermine our authority to protect people’s health and safety by ordering anti-dust measures when needed,” said Phil Kiddo, Air District Law Enforcement Officer. He said that this enforcement authority is granted under the 2014 agreement between the DWP and the Air District.

Water diversions beginning in 1913 drained the 110-square-mile Owens Lake, creating enormous sheets of minute, lung-damaging powder particles that slithered over cities downwind. Over the past three decades, the Doha Work Program has spent more than $2.5 billion on projects that have reduced dust emissions by nearly 100%.

“Despite this achievement, Great Basin has refused to acknowledge the success of the program, and instead has issued a series of associated orders and fines that show a clear pattern of overstepping its regulatory role,” the DWP said in a statement.

Over the first 90 years of its existence, the Los Angeles Canal has met more than 60% of the city’s demands. Today, however, half of that water must be directed to Inyo County farm leases, fisheries and dozens of court-mandated mitigation projects to meet federal air pollution standards.

In a lawsuit filed in the Sacramento County Superior Court — where the 2014 agreement was struck — air district officials claim that the DWP’s refusal to control dust emissions in the 5-acre area is a violation of the agreement.

Under an earlier agreement, the DWP must fund 85% of Great Basin’s annual operating budget — about $7 million — and pay all county legal fees whether it wins or loses in court.

The DWP responded by filing its own lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, accusing the weather district of exceeding its authority and ordering measures to control dust without conducting an environmental analysis of its effects, as required by California’s Environmental Quality Act.

Philip Kido of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District walks along the northern edge of Dry Owens Lake.

Philip Kido of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District walks along the northern edge of Dry Owens Lake.

(Louis Sahagún/Los Angeles Times)

“This 5-acre project may seem small – but it will result in huge success for our price-payers,” said Marty Adams, DWP General Manager and Chief Engineer. “It will add about $2 to your monthly water bills. And why? A pet project that has been set up in the area and does not meet the regulatory requirements.”

Adams said there was “no end in sight” for such demands. “Hopefully it won’t lead to an explosion 2014 agreement. “

Not only is the DWP accusing the Great Basin of overstepping its authority, but officials argue that the work will need the approval of its five indigenous tribes nominated 186 square miles of lake bed for inclusion on the California Register of Historic Resources and on the National Register of Historic Places.

The road along old Highway 136 bound for Keeler, California, is blocked by drifting dust.

The road along old Highway 136 bound for Keeler, California, is blocked by dust drifting from the dunes next to Owens Lake during a dust storm in May 2012.

(Mark Poster/Los Angeles Times)

One of these tribes, the Paiute Indians Fort Independence Indian Community, has not yet determined whether to sanction the project.

“We were shocked to see the Great Basin trying to enforce that the LADWP is acting in opposition to the requests of our tribal partners,” read a statement from Paul Liu, director of the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program.

The Great Basin argues that the relief area is not on tribal land. The agency says the state land commission, which supports the implementation of air pollution controls, is in a trust position.

Michael Prather, Lone Pine botanist, in Owens Lake.

Lone Pine botanist Michael Prather examines a specially designed and strategically placed circular metal structure for bird watching along the trails in Lake Owens.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Controversy confirms Sharpness that appeared In the Owens Valley since the early 1900s, when the city had agents posing as farmers and ranchers to purchase land and water rights in the valley, they then began building a canal to collect water and divert it from Inyo County to the water-starved city of the south.

“The LADWP is always looking for an excuse to avoid doing the right thing for the people of Owens Valley,” said Michael Prather, a botanist and longtime Sierra Club activist in the Lone Pine community. “In the meantime, we breathe in toxic dust as people in Los Angeles build more golf courses and swimming pools with our water.”

According to the county’s lawsuit, air pollution from the 5-acre area in question “could be severe.”

Air pollution from particulate matter can remain in the air for long periods and can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause scarring, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, as well as frequent asthma attacks in children.

District officials say the dangerous effects of so-called PM10 particles — particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter, much smaller than the width of a human hair — extend to vast areas downwind of Inyo County, including the city of Ridgecrest and the Navy. China Lake Air Weapons Station.

“Based on data from this area collected on April 16, 2018,” the county lawsuit says, “PM10 emissions were 160 percent of the federal standard of 150 micrograms per cubic meter.” She says this air pollution was carried to the community of Lone Pine, about nine miles downwind.

A DWP employee walks a gravel project in Owens Lake in 2012.

A DWP employee walks a gravel project in Owens Lake at the southern end of the Owens Valley that was intended to reduce the amount of dust formed on the lake bed in May 2012.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Under the 2014 agreement, the city agreed to comply with district orders to implement controls on 48.6 square miles of lake bed, and up to an additional 4.8 square miles, if needed. It provided a limit on the total area that a district could request for dust control in exchange for the city’s agreement not to challenge these orders.

But the deal did not settle the matter in an area that has seen heavy litigation as seniors remember that each of Los Angeles’ other four mayors, in turn, declared that “the bad old days are over in Inyo County.”

Then there was the DWP director bragging, “Litigation is cheaper than water.”

The agreement allows the use of shallow flooding, managed vegetation, gravel and plowing to contain and prevent dust emissions.

The project in question is designed to reduce ground disturbance and encourage growth of existing shrubs through seasonal irrigation. The water line 1,000 feet above ground will feed three hose spigots to allow the tribesmen to water the vegetation. Water will be supplied by a DWP water trailer parked nearby.

The Doha Work Program questions the effectiveness of the plan.

“It is not a tested method for controlling dust,” said Joseph Ramalo, assistant director general for water and electricity. “We have no evidence that it will work to control dust or protect cultural resources, which means that any spending could be a complete waste of our customers’ money.”

However, at least one proponent said it would be the least intrusive dust control measure in use to date.

Kathy Bancroft From Lone Payot-Shoshone Indian Reservation he stared at the wide array of dust control measures that had recently covered the bottom of the lake and shook its head. “Just look how Los Angeles ruined this landscape,” she said.

“The dust mitigation project that everyone is fighting about in court will not require excavation. It will be watered by hand without disturbing the soil or the artifacts buried in it.” All Los Angeles has to do is provide a little water. Is to ask too much?”

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