Old rage against
Jonathan T. Lovitt
In 1913, the city of
the West's greatest metropolis. The
The feud between
in books and, in fictionalized form, in the 1974 movie
Angry valley farmers dynamited the aqueduct 10 times in 1926.
Now the people of the valley have a new complaint: the empty, 110-square-mile
Backed by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, the
of the water it still pumps from this watershed and partially refilling Owens
Today, relentless desert winds whip dust laced with arsenic and other minerals
from the nearly dry lakebed thousands of feet into the air, creating furious dust
storms that limit visibility and leave many of the valley's 40,000 people gasping
with asthma attacks, allergic reactions and other respiratory problems.
Mountains, enjoys a dubious distinction: The EPA has declared that the valley
has the worst ``particulate pollution'' in the country.
About 20 days a year, during the worst of the dust storms, monitors set up by
local air-control officials have found that pollution from dust particles soars to 25
times the federal standard of 150 microns per cubic meter.
EPA says these particles, each about one-seventh the diameter of a human hair,
constitute ``a serious air pollutant that may cause severe respiratory illnesses,''
including emphysema. ``Children, the elderly and people suffering from heart
and lung disease are especially at risk.''
The dust clouds contain ``carcinogens such as nickel, cadmium, (and) arsenic,''
EPA said in a recent fact sheet. But no agency has ever undertaken a long-term
health study of the valley, perhaps because the population is so scattered. Only
50 or so people still make their homes here in Keeler, the settlement closest to
Throughout the valley, 75 miles long by 10 miles wide, residents run for cover
when the normally brilliant blue desert sky and chiseled mountains are shrouded
by miles of blinding dust.
``The storms terrify me,'' says Keeler resident Jeanne Lopez, 54, the former clerk
through the windows anyway. You can't see 15 feet in front of your face.''
Fifty miles to the
suffers a lot. ``She starts wheezing,'' says
of medication, inhalers, nasal sprays.''
At nearby China Lake Naval Weapons Station, planes are grounded and the
testing of missiles comes to a halt when the storms blow through. Doppler radar
at the base shows bands of thick dust clouds that resemble thundershowers.
The locals' complaints about dust took on new legitimacy in 1993, when EPA
declared that the air was polluted and ordered state and local authorities to clean
Pollution Control District, the agency that oversees air quality in the Owens
Valley and adjacent areas. The city bought most of the property along the Owens
River about 90 years ago, at bargain prices, from ranchers and farmers. The lake
itself, or what is left of it, belongs to the state.
The California Air
Resources Board was given until
abatement plan. The deadline passed without any action. The
in July submitted a proposal, calling on
by reducing the water it diverts from the river.
Last week, EPA officials, fed up by what they regarded as footdragging by the
and the city of
or we'll help you clean it up and your choices will be much more limited,'' said
Julia Barrow, EPA chief of air planning for the West Coast. ``Their plan is six
Valley,'' Barrow added. ``This really needs to be resolved soon.''
The 1999 deadline has bite to it. EPA says that if plans have not been approved
by then, it will clean up the lake itself, bill the state and impose sanctions; that
would mean the state would lose federal highway funds.
The California Air
Resources Board will be leaning on
The city has
resisted because the cleanup will be expensive. The
district plan, which calls for flooding a 35-square-mile area near Keeler and
covering the rest of the lakebed with vegetation and gravel, could cost between
$100 million and $300 million.
Angeles give up 51,000 acre feet of water a year, roughly 13% of the city's
annual take from the valley watershed. An acre foot serves a family of five for a
year. The city, which receives 60% of its water from the valley, would need
alternative sources of water.
Coincidentally, the EPA warning came just as Los Angeles Mayor Richard
Riordan, accompanied by several City Council members, visited the Owens
Valley last week. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which built
and still maintains the aqueduct, also sent several representatives.
residents claim. ``They say about 300 tons of dust a year blow off the lake,'' says
Jerry Gewe, director of water resources for
more like 12. That's a huge difference.''
The two sides
reportedly found little common ground, though
promised to draft its plan by the end of September.
But suspicion of
the valley. ``The DWP has a history of using questionable tactics,'' says Richard
Knox, 54, a retired employee of the Department of Water and Power who makes
his home in Bishop.
Knox and about 40 other demonstrators confronted Riordan at a cookout last
week, carrying signs demanding the city do something about the dust. ``Try a
arsenic and cadmium in your barbecue sauce for that true
flavor,'' read one sign.
GRAPHIC, B/W, Bob
Agency(Map); PHOTOS, B/W, Richard and Jeanne Lopez(2)