Owens Valley’s new dust battle could increase LA water bills

Even if worsening drought and aridification force Los Angeles to end its crushing dependence on imported water, Angelenos may soon find that weaning themselves off supplies from the rugged east of the Sierra Nevada doesn’t mean they’ll stop paying for the city’s long and complicated history there.

Indeed, even if the city is able to deliver on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s pledge to recycle 100% of its water by 2035 and increase its ability to capture stormwater, Los Angeles will still have to pay millions dollars to control the area’s dangerous dust pollution – an environmental consequence of the drainage of Owens Lake by Los Angeles more than a century ago, as well as recent diversions that lowered the level of Mono Lake further to the north.

Recently, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power accused Owens Valley air pollution authorities of “exceeding regulations” when they issued a $21 million fine. dollars to the utility for ignoring a dust control ordinance on a 5-acre parcel of dry lake bed. The order and subsequent fine imposed by the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District was an attempt to “raise” money from the city’s water users, the official said. DWP.

“Enough is enough,” read a statement from Cynthia McClain-Hill, chairwoman of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners. “More than 20% of our taxpayers live below the poverty line, and we cannot allow the people of Los Angeles to serve as a blank check for illegal Great Basin orders.”

Cynthia McClain Hill in 2019.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The agency also angered Mono Lake officials and conservationists recently when it reported to the Los Angeles City Council that it wanted to remove parts of a 1994 agreement to control emissions. of dust at Mono Lake, the hyper-saline body of water east of Yosemite National Park. famous for its steep tuff formations.

Arguing that climate change and drought have fundamentally altered the state’s water supply, DWP officials suggested it was impossible for them to ensure Mono Lake remained within certain dust dampening levels. .

Certainly, DWP ratepayers will see increases due to the cost of transforming the city’s water infrastructure. However, officials say Great Basin demands will further increase their water bills.

For their part, Owens Valley officials accuse Los Angeles of trying to avoid liability for environmental damage caused by the use of the water.

“The city wants to undermine our authority to protect people’s health and safety by ordering dust control measures where necessary,” said Phil Kiddoo, the air district’s enforcement officer. That enforcement authority is granted under a 2014 agreement between the DWP and the Air District, he said.

Water diversions that began in 1913 dried up the 110-square-mile Lake Owens, unleashing huge slicks of fine, lung-damaging particles that descended on towns downwind. Over the past three decades, DWP has spent more than $2.5 billion on projects that have reduced dust emissions by almost 100%.

“Despite this achievement, Great Basin has refused to acknowledge the success of the program and has instead issued a series of associated orders and fines that demonstrate a clear pattern of overstepping its regulatory role,” reads a statement from the DWP.

During the first 90 years of its existence, the Los Angeles Aqueduct met more than 60% of the city’s demands. Today, however, half of that water must be directed to Inyo County ranching operations, fishing and dozens of court-ordered mitigation projects to meet federal water pollution standards. ‘air.

In a lawsuit filed in Sacramento County Superior Court – where the 2014 agreement was reached – Air District officials allege that the DWP’s refusal to control dust emissions on the 5-acre area is a violation of the pact.

Under a previous agreement, the DWP must fund 85% of Great Basin’s annual operating budget — about $7 million — and pay all of the district’s legal costs, whether it wins or loses in court.

The DWP responded by filing its own lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, accusing the Air District of overstepping its authority and ordering dust control measures without first conducting an environmental analysis of its impacts. , as required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

Phillip Kiddoo of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District walks along the northern rim of dry Lake Owens.

Phillip Kiddoo of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District walks along the northern rim of dry Lake Owens.

(Louis Sahagun/Los Angeles Times)

“This 5-acre project may seem small – but it would be a huge blow to our ratepayers,” said Marty Adams, DWP’s managing director and chief engineer. “It would add about $2 to their monthly water bills. And why? A pet project the district concocted that doesn’t meet regulatory requirements. »

Adams said there was “no end in sight” for such demands. “We hope this doesn’t blow up the 2014 deal.”

Not only does the DWP accuse Great Basin of overstepping its authority, but officials say the work would require approval from five native tribes who have named 186 square miles of the lakebed for listing on the California Register of Historic Resources and the National Register. . historical places.

The roadway along the old Route 136 toward Keeler, California is obscured by drifting dust.

The roadway along the old Route 136 towards Keeler, California is obscured by drifting dust from the sand dunes beside Lake Owens during a dust storm in May 2012.

(Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

One of those tribes, the Fort Independence Indian Community of Paiute Indians, has not yet said whether it sanctions the project.

“We are shocked to see Great Basin attempt to demand that LADWP act in opposition to the demands of our tribal partners,” read a statement from Paul Liu, director of Owens Lake’s dust mitigation program.

Great Basin argues that the mitigation zone is not on tribal land. The agency says it is held in trust by the State Lands Commission, which supports the implementation of air pollution controls.

Michael Prather, a botanist from Lone Pine, Owens Lake.

Lone Pine botanist Michael Prather checks out a purpose-built, strategically placed round metal structure for birdwatching along the Owens Lake trails.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The dispute underscores the acrimony that has plagued the Owens Valley since the early 1900s, when the city asked agents to impersonate farmers and ranchers to buy land and water rights in the valley, then began building an aqueduct to collect and divert water from Inyo County to the water-hungry metropolis to the south.

“LADWP is always looking for an excuse to avoid doing the right thing for the people of Owens Valley,” said Michael Prather, botanist and longtime Sierra Club activist in the Lone Pine community. . “In the meantime, we’re breathing in toxic dust as the people of Los Angeles build more golf courses and swimming pools with our water.”

The air pollution generated by the 5-acre area in dispute “may be severe,” according to the district’s lawsuit.

Particulate air pollution can stay airborne for long periods of time and can lodge deep in the lungs and cause scarring, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and more frequent asthma attacks in people. children.

The dangerous effects of so-called PM10 — particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter, much smaller than the width of a human hair — extend to large areas downwind of Inyo County, officials say of the district, including the town of Ridgecrest and the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.

“Based on data for this area collected on April 16, 2018,” the district’s lawsuit states, “PM10 emissions were 160 percent of the federal standard of 150 micrograms per cubic meter.” This air pollution was carried into the community of Lone Pine, about nine miles downwind, he says.

A DWP employee walks on the gravel project at Owens Lake in 2012.

A DWP employee walks on the gravel project at Owens Lake, at the southern end of the Owens Valley, which aimed to reduce the amount of dust created on the lake bed in May 2012.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Under the 2014 agreement, the city agreed to comply with district ordinances to implement controls on 48.6 square miles of the lake bed and up to an additional 4.8 square miles, if needed. It provided a cap on the total square footage that could be ordered for dust control by the district in exchange for the city agreeing not to challenge those orders.

But the deal didn’t settle the issue in the highly contentious area where alumni recall each of Los Angeles’ last four mayors, in turn, proclaiming, “The bad old days are over in the county of Inyō”.

Then there was a DWP official who boasted, “Litigation costs less than water”.

The agreement allows for the use of shallow flooding, managed vegetation, gravel and tillage to contain and prevent dust emissions.

The project in question was designed to minimize soil disturbance and encourage the growth of existing shrubs through seasonal watering. A 1,000-foot-long water pipe laid above ground would supply three hose taps for tribesmen to water vegetation. Water would be supplied by a DWP water trailer parked nearby.

The DWP doubts the effectiveness of the plan.

“It’s not a proven method of dust control,” said Joseph Ramallo, the utility’s assistant general manager of water and power. “We have no evidence to prove that it will work to control dust or protect cultural resources, which means any expense could be a complete waste of our customers’ money.”

However, at least one proponent said it would be the least intrusive dust control measure used to date.

Kathy Bancroft of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Indian Reservation looked through the vast patchwork of dust control measures recently covering the lake bed and shook her head. “Just look at how Los Angeles has ruined this landscape,” she said.

“The dust mitigation project that everyone is fighting over in court would not require excavation. It would be watered by hand without disturbing the ground or the artifacts buried there,” she said. “All LA has to do is provide some water. Is it too much to ask?

Los Angeles Times

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