One hundred and one years after Los Angeles opened the aqueduct to draw water from the Owens Valley, the city has reached a settlement over how it will control dust blowing off the dry Owens Lake bed. The deal will save L.A. hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years and free up more water for Angelenos. It will also, hopefully, be an important marker in L.A.'s history in the Eastern Sierra — the moment at which all sides finally agreed on how much was enough to fix the environmental catastrophe created when the city drained the valley to sustain a growing metropolis 200 miles away.
For decades, winds blowing through the valley kicked up fine salts and dust from the dry lake and produced some of the worst particulate air pollution in the U.S. Facing lawsuits and environmental orders, the L.A. Department of Water and Power agreed to pay for and implement dust-control measures in the late 1990s, beginning with watering down 11 square miles of lake bed. But the utility has continually battled with the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District over how much terrain it should be responsible for dust-proofing. What began as 11 square miles eventually grew to 45 square miles that needed to be watered or controlled, at a cost of $1.3 billion for L.A. ratepayers so far. In some years, the DWP was using 95,000 acre-feet of water to flood the lake bed, enough to supply San Francisco.
The fight became even more pitched in 2012 when the Great Basin district ordered the DWP to control dust on another 3 square miles, at an estimated cost of about $400 million. The DWP responded with a lawsuit challenging the order, as well as a public relations campaign that slammed the district's staff for moving the finish line and blaming the utility for naturally occurring dust. It looked as though L.A. was going to spend another decade in court.
But new leadership at City Hall softened the DWP's hard line. Mayor Eric Garcetti, his new commissioners and City Atty. Mike Feuer reached out to Great Basin to mend the relationship and find a compromise. Over a year, they negotiated a deal increasing the area over which L.A. will be responsible for imposing dust control measures to 53 square miles of lake bed — and no more. And it limits Great Basin's ability to issue new orders to the DWP. Plus, the DWP is allowed to use less water-intensive measures, rather than flooding the area. As a result, L.A. will save nearly 3 billion gallons of water this year, enough to supply 43,000 Angelenos.
Of course, this settlement alone will not end the struggle over water in the Eastern Sierra. Residents, ranchers and environmentalists want to keep as much as possible in the Owens Valley, while the DWP wants to use it to replace more expensive, purchased water. Still, the agreement is a sign that peace is possible even after 100 years of warring over water.