Track 16: Bill VanWagoner, LADWP

With the diversion of the Owens River into the Los Angeles Aqueduct beginning in 1913, Owens Lake, the river’s natural terminus, became bone dry by 1926. Shortly thereafter, severe alkali dust storms arising from the 108 square-mile dry lakebed began to plague the region regularly—as much as four million tons of Owens Lake dust per year has been reported to have traveled as far as San Bernardino and other southern locations. [1]

By the 1980s, national air pollution standards had been set by the EPA for windblown particulate matter ten microns in diameter or less (PM-10). Usually associated with dust, smoke, and haze resulting from natural fires, motor vehicles, industry or agriculture, Owens Lake is considered to be the largest single source of PM-10 in the nation.[2]

With the passing of California Health and Safety Code 42316, a series of negotiations with the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD) took place during late 1990s.  The City of Los Angeles and GBUAPCD entered into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) in July 1998, requiring the LADWP to implement dust control mitigation measures designed to meet state and federal air quality standards by the mid-2000s. It was agreed that LADWP would remediate 40 square-miles of the dry Owens lakebed—initiating the largest dust control project of its kind ever attempted in North America.

Although the MOA did not require LADWP to fully rewater Owens Lake, it did stipulate that the department needed to begin trials of three approved dust control remediation strategies; shallow flooding, managed vegetation, and gravel cover with other approved “reasonable measures.”

Shallow flooding using a bubbler system was the first dust control method implemented when lakebed testing began in 2001. A positive by-product of the flooding was the creation of marsh and shallow lake habitat utilized by migratory birds and other resident wildlife. Although flooding is an obvious choice for dust abatement, it is costly and requires a lot of water. LADWP claims that up to 95,000 acre-feet of water per year is currently used in Owens Lake remediation efforts—an amount nearly equal to San Francisco’s total annual water supply.[3] Of course, returning water to the lakebed quite understandably goes against LADWP’s ultimate mission of delivering water from the Eastern Sierra to the city of Los Angeles.

Managed vegetation involving the planting of native grasses and other rhizomes to control dust emissions is the second control method. This technique has been successful at some locations but only works where soil and drainage conditions are optimum. Contrasted with shallow flooding this method uses only a third of the water to implement.

The third method involves spreading large areas of gravel four inches deep over an industrial type fabric has been used on 1.4 square-miles of the lakebed to date. This particular approach has been difficult to gain usage approval, as it fails to provide any viable habitat for birds and other wildlife. Gravel is also terribly expensive—costing up to $30 million for a single square-mile of the material. Additionally, the gravel method presents other problems; expensive heavy machinery used to move the material sank into the unstable lakebed on numerous occasions. [4] Other proposed, but failed strategies included the “moat & row” tillage technique.

VanWagoner stated in his interview that the department has spent up to 1.2 billion dollars on the Owens Lake dust mitigation project, which includes construction, operation, and maintenance of the mitigation measures as well as the cost of the city’s replacement water that must be purchased from other, more expensive sources.

An attorney for LADWP announced in February 2012 that it is ‘done’ with furthering its dust mitigation efforts on Owens Lake.[5] The department’s press release stated that the it plans to fulfill and maintain its current remediation obligations but will fight any additional future mitigation measures brought to court by GBUAPCD or other entities. The release also stated its concern over how to implement “less water-intensive control measures approved has proved unnecessarily difficult, if not impossible” suggesting that LADWP will continue to aggressively fight to provide far less water to this project for the future.

[1] Molly Peterson, “Owens Lake dust kicks up questions about DWP’s eastern Sierra efforts,” 89.3 KPCC: Southern California Radio, December 12, 2010.
[2] Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District website: Last accessed on 9/17/12.
[3] Interview with William VanWagoner, Manager of the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program on 8/17/12.
[4] Molly Peterson, “LADWP says Owens Lake’s ‘Owengeti’ could suggest new modes for dust control,” 89.3 KPCC: Southern California Radio, June 15, 2012.
[5] Mike Gervais, “DWP tells state board it’s ‘done’ at Owens Lake,” The Inyo Register, June 25, 2012.

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