If Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power created an Eden of sorts here at the turn of the century with water diverted from the faraway Owens River, the agency left something considerably less idyllic in its wake. In recent years the DWP has begun to make amends. Now, regrettably, it seems to be reversing course.
With photographs and maps, a new exhibit at the Huntington Library in San Marino details the DWP’s pivotal role in the conceptualization and development of semiarid Los Angeles. “Envisioning Eden. Water and the Selling of Los Angeles, 1880-1930" depicts how the DWP’s diversion of water from the Owens Valley made possible the rapid settlement of this area. This is an old story: Water was fact and symbol, helping to realize a vision of Southern California as a proud region built on strong civic virtues and middle-class values.
“There it is. Take it!” engineer William Mulholland said in 1913 as the 233-mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct first delivered Owens River water down the spillway and eventually to lawns, fountains and subdivisions seemingly without end.
The story of the Owens Valley is less often told. The DWP diversions extracted a high price there, draining the rushing, Sierra-fed Owens River to a dribble and turning the vast Owens Lake into a 110-square-mile dust bowl.
In 1991 the DWP began trying to make up for the river diversion, agreeing to limits on the amount of water it would take and to restoration of some of the riparian habitat.
But the dry lake bed remains a major air pollution problem. On most days, the air in Owens Valley is among the cleanest in the nation. But when the wind blows, dust from the lake bed covers surrounding towns with the highest particulate count in the nation. Residents often stay indoors then or wear masks when they venture out.
The federal Clean Air Act requires the Owens Lake dust problem to be settled by 2001, just a moment away for a problem this big. A 35-square-mile portion of the lake bed presents the biggest challenge. Plans include piping water through grasses planted to anchor loose soil and to provide additional wildlife habitat.
The Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, in charge of the cleanup and revival, has been working with the DWP for a number of years.
A 1982 state law designated the DWP to pay for much of the work. But now, inexplicably, the DWP has told the Great Basin district that it will not pay next year’s cleanup assessment and has petitioned the state Air Resources Board to reconsider whether it should be held responsible for cleanup at all.
This sorry behavior does not distinguish the DWP nor mitigate the upstream problems that the agency wrought when it created its Eden downstream. The DWP should do its part and get back to work on the lake bed problem.