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LADWP tries to keep Owens Lake dust down

August 14, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Despite a serious drought, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has to pump fresh water into the desert, because of a court settlement. Now the DWP is looking for non-water alternatives to control the dust.Besides providing water and electricity for L.A. residents, the LADWP has been in the dust control business for about a decade. Under the terms of a court-supervised settlement, the department diverts 68,000 acre-feet of clean, fresh water onto a dry lake near Lone Pine. Even during the worst drought in memory, water still flows onto Owens Lake.

"There is nothing in the agreement that would allow us to not meet our obligation in a drought year," said Jim McDaniel, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

All the water is cutting dust levels. The lake was once the single largest source of air pollution in the United States. But thanks to the water, that title is a thing of the past.

"We're ten times lower than we were. So we're still higher than we should be, but we're a lot better than we were," said Ted Schade, Great Basin Air Pollution Control District.

Ponds have been developed through shallow flooding to cut the dust, but they take a lot of water. A pipe at just one pond flows at 3,000 gallons per minute. The DWP is constantly looking for alternatives.

One solution is managed vegetation, which uses less water and encourages grass to grow around the dustiest portions of the lake. Migratory birds have returned, which thrills conservationists. However, the DWP faces even larger diversions of water if it can't find other ways to cut dust.

"We've met every deadline that they've set for us and we haven't had any violations up to now," said McDaniel. "Now we're at the point, though, where we need to start looking at more water conserving ways of doing the dust control out there."

The simplest solution would be to cover the lakebed with gravel, but environmentalists fiercely oppose the idea. So the DWP is experimenting with moat and row, digging ditches in the desert with fences to fend off the wind. It is also looking at pumping brackish ground water from under the lake and spreading it on the surface. However, the idea that is generating the most excitement is solar panels.

"We think it could be a real win-win for both the water and the power side," said McDaniel.

The idea of covering at least a portion of Owens Lake with solar panels seems to agree with nearly everyone. The Great Basin Air Pollution Control District, the agency that sets dust goals for the DWP, says if solar farms control dust, then it is better for everyone.

"What we're concerned about is that it controls dust," said Schade. "And we think that if you put enough solar panels close enough out there, it will act as a wind-break and it will control dust."

The plans are still years away from reality, but if solar collectors work, L.A. would find itself importing both electrons and water from Owens Valley.

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