L.A. Sues to End the Century-Old Owens Lake Saga

Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Owens Lake

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) will mark the 100th anniversary of water diversions from Owens Lake—which eventually turned it into a dustbowl—in federal court, suing the state and federal government over orders, it is defying, to expand its anti-dust efforts. 

After years of litigation, agreements in 1997 and 2008 required the department to take steps to control dust at what is now known as the Owens Dry Lake, and has spent more than $1.2 billion on mitigation measures across 40 square miles. Now, the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District wants DWP to extend its efforts to another three square miles and the department is balking.

Los Angeles representatives say the city has fulfilled its legal obligations and is done.

The origin of the fight between rural Owens Valley, 200 miles to the north, and Los Angeles authorities was glorified in the 1974 movie “Chinatown,” which was a fictional account of the water diversion of snowmelt and spring water that began via aqueduct in 1913, and ended little more than a decade later when the lake, once 100 square miles in size, went dry. Farmers were devastated and the area has been wracked by dust storms and drought ever since.

The agreements signed by Los Angeles, under pressure from federal authorities, state agencies and the courts, obligated the city to help control the resulting particle air pollution by planting vegetation, laying gravel and flooding large areas of the lake bed with water. DWP says in its lawsuit that the additional work the water district is requiring would cost another $400 million and require it to divert water it cannot afford to lose.

The city argues that it has reduced air pollution by 90%, and that the air quality agency is being unreasonable in its new demands. L.A. officials maintain that its mitigation efforts were largely successful and that Owens Valley’s current dust problems are not related to actions taken by Los Angeles in the past. They say the air quality district is trying to indefinately extend an agreement that has finite limits.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a prepared statement, “We have no intent to walk away from our fundamental obligations at Owens Lake. Unfortunately, just one agency stood in the way of progress by continuing to issue unreasonable orders on the people of Los Angeles.”

The dispute ended up before the California Air Resources Board in June, where the DWP did not prevail. The lawsuit names the board, the California State Lands Commission, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Bureau of Land Managment.    

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Owens Lake Lawsuit: LA Department Of Water & Power Sues Air Regulators (by Gillian Flaccus, Associated Press)

DWP Sues to Limit Is Sending on Owens Lake (by Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Sues to Avoid Air Pollution Control Laws (Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District)

Owens Lake Dust Control Lawsuit: Questions & Answers (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power) (pdf)

Federal Lawsuit Seeks to Protect Los Angeles Water Consumers Against Local Regulator’s Unlawful Demands in Owens Valley (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power)

DWP Tells State Board It’s “Done” at Owens Lake (by Mike Gervais, Inyo Register)

City of Los Angeles v. Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District et al. (U.S. District Court Eastern District of California) (pdf)

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