The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's ambitious plan to put solar panels on 80 square miles of dry lake bed and flatlands east of the Sierra Nevada range has run into a daunting problem: extremely caustic mud in an area where it hoped to build an 80-acre pilot project.
Preliminary engineering tests show that if solar panel platforms were placed at the southern end of the nearly dry 110-square-mile Owens Lake, they would sink as much as several inches into extremely corrosive soil.
The DWP now plans a much more modest five-acre pilot project on firmer sandy soil at the north end of the lake.
"It's going to be more challenging than we thought to do it on the lake bed," DWP engineer Bill Van Wagoner said in an interview. "But if everything pans out, the north end of the lake could potentially provide two square miles of solar development. We can always hope, right?"
The soil problem, however, is only one of several issues that have begun to raise fresh doubts about the entire project's pace and potential for generating clean energy and new jobs.
In February, then-DWP General Manager S. David Freeman made a rare visit to the Owens Valley to present the proposal to transform the lake bed and vast tracts of desert north of it into one of the largest sources of solar power in the United States.
The project, Freeman said, would generate jobs in financially struggling Inyo County, bring renewable energy companies to Los Angeles and generate more than 10% of all the power produced in California.
Environmentalists and health advocates were particularly pleased with promises that the project would save water by relying on solar panels, instead of huge pools of Owens River water, to limit choking dust storms that sweep across dry parts of the lake bed. Some of the saved water could be used to restore wetlands for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.
But the prospects of developing solar arrays on Owens Lake have dimmed since Freeman stepped down as DWP chief in April.
In an interview, the DWP's new interim general manager, Austin Beutner, said that the utility still has plans to install solar arrays on the lake, but that the scope of that project would largely depend on the engineering challenges, cost and amount of renewable power the DWP would need from the Owens Valley.
Beutner said his plans for generating solar power include both the lake and DWP-owned desert highlands to the north and that, at this point, neither is favored over the other. Pilot solar arrays will be tested in both areas.
"We're looking at all the different possibilities," Beutner said. "This is going to unfold very slowly."
The viability of installing solar arrays on the lake bed would depend to a great degree on whether they can be designed to effectively slow the gale-force winds that sweep off the mountains to create hazardous dust storms in the region, he said.
"We have to look at what actually works," Beutner said. "Solar is one arrow in a quiver of possibilities that we're looking at, but it's certainly not the only solution."
Here in the dusty heart of the Owens Valley between the 14,000-foot Sierra Nevada on the west and the 11,000-foot Inyo Mountains on the east, that kind of talk has elicited disappointment and skepticism.
"It's a bit of a letdown," said Owens Valley botanist and environmental activist Michael Prather. "The thought of Owens Valley becoming a capital of solar energy production had triggered plans for training school kids to take solar jobs and of building warehouses and parking structures in a place where new jobs are all but nonexistent."
It is not the first time top Los Angeles officials have reneged on their grandiose plans for the Owens Valley.
In 2004, then-Mayor James K. Hahn heightened expectations by supporting an effort to hammer out a plan by the end of that year that would have eliminated the possibility of subdivisions on the 320,000 acres of watershed the DWP has owned for a century. After a tour of the valley less a month later, Hahn disappointed environmentalists by saying that he had no preferred plan and that the process would take "as long as it takes."
Although the technology exists to build solar array foundations capable of reducing sinking, coping with corrosive soil and blocking strong winds, Ted Schade, head of the regional air quality district, said, "The real question is this: Can Los Angeles afford it?"
Richard Cervantes, chairman of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, agreed. "In my personal opinion, they'll never build a massive array of solar panels out there on the lake bed. It's too expensive. Some people say it would compare with the building of the pyramids in ancient Egypt."
DWP solar project engineer Yamen Nanne said the utility plans to disclose details about the project's future in August.
In the meantime, a growing concern here is that the DWP will first develop its 48 to 58 square miles of undisturbed desert scrub lands north of the lake bed, where it would face fewer costly geotechnical challenges.
Developing that land would require large-scale leveling of wind-deposited soil anchored by desert shrubs, possibly creating a new source of dust storms next to the recently rehabilitated Lower Owens River, according to botanist Prather.
Striding across a patch of knee-high greasewood shrubs beneath a thicket of towers and transmission lines a few miles north of the lake bed, Prather asked rhetorically, "Is it fair for the Owens Valley to shoulder so much of the impacts of developing solar power for the good of Los Angeles and the rest of the state? After all, we have already sacrificed so much."
The controversy over the proposed solar park underlines the historic acrimony that has simmered between the DWP and Owens Valley residents since the early 1900s, when the city had agents pose as farmers and ranchers to buy land and water rights in the valley, then began building an aqueduct to slake the thirst of the growing metropolis 200 miles to the south.
The city's massive network of water diversions associated with the L.A. Aqueduct eventually turned Owens Lake into vast salt flats prone to fierce dust storms.
"I just hope they don't give up on Owens Lake," Prather said. "But that might be dreaming at this point."
Sahagun reported from Lone Pine; Willon reported from Los Angeles.