New dust-busting method ends L.A.'s longtime feud with Owens Valley

L.A. reaches deal with Owens Valley, ending decades-long battle over water and dust from lake bed

Los Angeles ended a bitter dispute with Owens Valley on Friday with the announcement of a truce in a decades-long dispute over water and dust.

Under an agreement between the city and Owens Valley air quality regulators, Los Angeles will use a new, organic method of suppressing airborne dust from the dry bed of Owens Lake, which L.A. drained to slake its thirst in the last century.

The new method will eventually save the Department of Water and Power enough water to supply 150,000 Los Angeles residents each year.

For nearly two decades, DWP has flooded most of the 110-square-mile lake bed to prevent choking dust storms in the valley that left residents suffering from asthma and other respiratory ailments.

The new solution is relatively inexpensive and nearly waterless, DWP officials said. It involves using tractors to turn moist lake bed clay into furrows and basketball-sized clods of dirt. The clods will bottle up the dust for years before breaking down, at which point the process will be repeated.

The method was first tested in the early 1990s, then tabled out of concern the furrows and clods would disintegrate after a few rains. Two years ago, the DWP resurrected the idea and tested it on several acres of lake bed, but on a much larger scale, with furrows 2 to 3 feet deep. The results showed promise, provided the treated area has clay soil and flooding infrastructure in place.

The agreement culminates a year of negotiations between city officials and officers of the tiny but powerful Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, which is responsible for protecting the health of Owens Valley residents.

"Today, we got the job done," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference at DWP's downtown headquarters. The savings of water and money will reduce the need to raise water rates and will require the DWP to purchase less water from the Metropolitan Water District to replace supplies spread on the lake for dust control, Garcetti said.

The new process, which starts in December, is expected to save nearly 3 billion gallons of water its first year, rising to nearly 10 billion gallons three years later. Most of that water will be put back into the aqueduct. But the plumbing system for spreading water on the lake will remain in place as a backup.

Some portions of the lake bed will remain wet to draw migrating waterfowl, an ecological boon to the eastern Sierra.

The new method will cost DWP customers about $1 million per square mile — three times less than shallow flooding. The cost of reducing dust with gravel, which has been applied to swaths of the lake bed, is about $25 million per square mile, officials said.

The utility has already spent $1.3 billion in accordance with a 1997 agreement to combat dust over a 40-square-mile area, reducing particle air pollution in the region by 90%.

The utility and the air district also agreed to establish a new Owens Lake Scientific Advisory Panel staffed by the nonprofit National Academy of Sciences to assess the effectiveness of dust control efforts. The panel will be funded with the roughly $2 million the utility and air district spend annually on litigation in the dispute, officials said.

"This is a proud moment," City Atty. Mike Feuer said. "The area around the lake bed used to have the worst air quality in the United States. By 2017, it will have among the best air quality in the nation."

In the dusty heart of the Owens Valley, situated between the 14,000-foot Sierra Nevada on the west and 11,000-foot Inyo Mountains on the east, that kind of talk has always elicited skepticism, given the history of a water war that began in the early 1900s. Eager to find water for the growing metropolis, Los Angeles had agents pose as farmers and ranchers to buy water and land rights in the valley.

With those rights in hand, the city built an aqueduct and began sending water south.

Generations later, the Owens Valley wielded a powerful club against Los Angeles — the federal Clean Air Act, which requires states to clean up particulate pollution. If the state fails to comply, the federal government can impose economic sanctions and step in with solutions of its own.

A separate state law requires Los Angeles to pay for "reasonable measures" chosen by the air district to fix Owens Lake.

Today, the lake bed bristles with air pollution monitoring devices and video cameras that helped Ted Schade, the air district's enforcement officer, monitor the dust storms that kick up each fall and winter.

City officials singled out Schade for praise Friday. Garcetti described him as "a truly great environmentalist."

The comments marked a reversal by a city that just a few years ago made him the target of a barrage of DWP lawsuits, including one accusing him of issuing unreasonable and unlawful orders. The city asked to have him barred from presiding over decisions affecting the city.

Ron Nichols, DWP general manager at the time, said in a statement then that "our water consumer will no longer be victimized by an unaccountable regulator."

Schade was abandoned by many Owens Valley community leaders and environmental activists who feared that standing up in his defense would risk retribution from DWP.

That federal court lawsuit was dismissed a year later.

This week, Schade, 57, stood on a berm in a portion of the dry lake recently tilled to test the effectiveness of the new dust suppression method.

"I've been at war with the DWP for 24 years, two months and 15 days," he said. "The fighting is over, and the path forward is clear. So, I'm resigning in December. My job here is done."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

@LouisSahagun

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