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SoCal waters the desert during a drought?

August 14, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
As Southern California deals with its worst drought in recent memory, Los Angeles is paying a heavy price to put water back into the desert.Owens Lake dried up 90 years ago after William Mulholland diverted the Owens River into the Department of Water and Power's new aqueduct and brought the water to Los Angeles. A court-ordered project to cut dust from the dry lake is costing half a billion dollars and huge amounts of water.

"We have a legal obligation to control the dust," said Jim McDaniels, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The wind and dust made Owens Lake the largest single source of air pollution in the United States. However, that changed over the last ten years. Huge pipes, hundreds of smaller bubblers and thousands of tiny drippers, allow water to spread out across the vast expanse of Owens Lake. As a result, acres of green grass have sprouted on the lakebed and migratory birds have returned to the ponds. But all the water, roads and dikes are used for the sole purpose of keeping the dust down.

Inyo County Water Director Bob Harrington remembers what it was like before the Department of Water and Power got serious about controlling dust.

"There would be days in the spring time when you couldn't see the Sierra Nevada or the Inyo Mountains because there was so much dust blowing up the valley," said Dr. Harrington. "Days like that don't occur anymore."

Dust still flies when the wind blows, but ten years of diverting DWP water onto the lake has brought it to tolerable levels. However, some see using good water as a waste.

"We believe that there's better ways to mitigate the dust on Owens Lake," said Beverly Brown, Inyo County Supervisor. "Putting really good, precious water on Owens Lake is not the answer."

Roughly 168,000 acre-feet of water per year are diverted out of the aqueduct and onto Owens Lake; enough to supply the entire city of Long Beach. And soon they'll be using even more. Under a court agreement, the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District calls the shots. But the district's director says it never said the DWP had to use water.

"The city has chosen to solve much of the dust problem by putting water on it," said Ted Schade, Great Basin Air Pollution Control District.

DWP officials say it uses water to control the dust because one decade ago, when the agreement was made, it had to act quickly. Now that it has met its goals DWP is looking for alternatives.

"I could certainly think of better ways I'd rather ... other things I'd rather be doing with that water," said McDaniel.

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