Old rage against L.A. renewed
Jonathan T. Lovitt
KEELER, Calif.-- The residents of California's Owens Valley have complained
for decades about Los Angeles, 250 miles away.
In 1913, the city of Los Angeles built an aqueduct that diverted water from the
Owens River southward, to irrigate Los Angeles' suburbs, and in the process
dried up majestic Owens Lake. Los Angeles Aqueduct transformed a poky town
into the West's greatest metropolis. The Owens Valley withered.
The feud between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley is part of California lore,
documented in books and, in fictionalized form, in the 1974 movie Chinatown.
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
lakebed Los Angeles left behind is making them sick.
Backed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Owens Valley is
demanding that Los Angeles clean up the mess, even if it means giving up some
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.
The Owens Valley, wedged between the Sierra Nevada range and the Inyo
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
of Inyo County. ``There's really no way to get away from the dust. It comes in
through the windows anyway. You can't see 15 feet in front of your face.''
Fifty miles to the south in Ridgecrest, Rochelle Fulton's 8-year-old daughter,
Angela, suffers a lot. ``She starts wheezing,'' says Fulton. ``She needs all kinds
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
Los Angeles was held legally responsible by the Great Basin Unified Air
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 Feb. 8, 1997, to submit a
dust abatement plan. The deadline passed without any action. The Great Basin
district in July submitted a proposal, calling on Los Angeles to restore part of the
lake by reducing the water it diverts from the river. Los Angeles balked.
Last week, EPA officials, fed up by what they regarded as footdragging by the
state and the city of Los Angeles, issued a warning. ``Start cleanup by 8/20/99,
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
When Los Angeles ``dried up the lake it caused a lot of suffering in the Owens
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 Los Angeles to comply.
The city has resisted because the cleanup will be expensive. The Great Basin
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.
Under the Great Basin scheme, the lake would be replenished by making Los
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.
Los Angeles officials say they doubt that the dust problem is as grave as valley
residents claim. ``They say about 300 tons of dust a year blow off the lake,'' says
Jerry Gewe, director of water resources for Los Angeles. ``Our numbers say it's
more like 12. That's a huge difference.''
The two sides reportedly found little common ground, though Los Angeles has
promised to draft its plan by the end of September.
But suspicion of Los Angeles and its powerful water department still abounds in
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
little arsenic and cadmium in your barbecue sauce for that true Owens Valley
flavor,'' read one sign.
GRAPHIC, B/W, Bob Laird, USA TODAY ,Source: Environmental Protection
Agency(Map); PHOTOS, B/W, Richard and Jeanne Lopez(2)