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LONE PINE, Calif. — Even during the worst drought in its history, the city of Los Angeles is pouring huge amounts of water into this parched desert valley 200 miles of City Hall.
It's the ironic result of a strategy the city pursued a century ago to meet its growing demand for water. And it's a history lesson that's caught the attention of Utah water planners trying to assess the impacts of the California decision.
Under court order, LA has been waging an expensive battle for 15 years against dust storms on the dried-up bed of Owens Lake, a body of water that vanished during a century of water diversions out of the Owens River.
Environmentalists claim the Great Salt Lake could also become a massive source of dust if Utah follows through on long-range plans to dam and divert the Bear River. But Utah's top water officials doubt that claim.
In the case of Owens Lake, the dust-control effort launched in the year 2000 has largely focused on water. Water that otherwise would be used for drinking or showers or lawns is being diverted to the mostly dry lake bed.
"They've been using around 75,000 acre-feet a year," said Nik Barbieri, of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District.
"In terms of water use, I believe they compare it to the annual water use for the city of San Francisco."
Barbieri's agency sued the city of LA two decades ago because of enormous dust storms generated by the dry lake. It was identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the biggest source of PM-10 pollution in the nation. Barbieri said the PM-10 pollution was a health issue for the Owens Valley.
"It's really fine dust particles," Barbieri said. "It gets into your lungs and it can clog up the airways in your lungs and basically cause health problems."
The reason Los Angeles wound up in the legal bull's-eye is because 100 years ago, city planners coveted the runoff from the snow-capped peaks of the Eastern Sierra. The city quietly bought up land and water rights in the Owens Valley, which includes the towns of Bishop and Lone Pine in California.
Much of the flow of the Owens River was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct and channeled to the city 200 miles away. For most of the last century, the lower Owens River dried up, choking off the water supply to Owens Lake.
The whole lake looked like a big atomic bomb exploded. And it would be dark. It would darken out the sun.
–Kathy Bancroft, Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation
Many environmentalists consider it an environmental disaster and an epic error, but Barbieri has a more sympathetic view.
"The city of LA wouldn't be the city of LA if they didn't do this," Barbieri said. "And they've done a lot of good work lately to remedy this."
Kathy Bancroft, an official of the nearby Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation, says LA's diversions were clearly a mistake.
"Definitely a wrong," Bancroft said. "It's supposed to be for the greater good, but we're not invisible. We're still here and trying to survive."
Bancroft remembers enormous dust storms several times a year while she was growing up on the reservation.
"The whole lake looked like a big atomic bomb exploded," she recalled. "And it would be dark; it would darken out the sun."
The dust storms began in the 1920s and seem to have peaked in the 1980s and '90s.
"Asthma is a big problem," Bancroft said. "I have asthma. Almost everybody (here) has some effects of asthma. There's other things, like heart conditions and things like that."
Since LA began its court-ordered dust-control program in 2000, the city has diverted not just water to Owens Lake, but also big piles of money. The Owens Lake dust project consumes about 15 percent of every water bill in the city, totaling more than a billion dollars so far.
In the beginning, controllers just flooded vast amounts of dry lake bed.
"Now, with the drought, we're working with the city to develop ways that use less water or no water," Barbieri said.
Working with the pollution control agency, the city has had some success growing salt grass on the lake bed and have covered some of it with gravel. Parts have been tilled to make wind-resistant furrows.
Bancroft said big, heavy dust storms from the lake bed are less common now, but she perceives an increasing problem valley wide.
"Now you've got a problem with the drought and with increased ground pumping," Bancroft said. "The whole valley blows dust now."
Great Salt Lake
Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council said LA's history with Owens Valley should be a lesson for Utah.
"The first lesson is that water projects can have unintended health consequences, which can be deleterious to everybody," Frankel said. He predicts a similar fate for the Great Salt Lake if proposed water projects divert too much of its supply.
"It's going to create dust once the lake has shrunken down as a function of diverting the Bear River," Frankel said.
Utah's top water official disagrees. "I'm not aware that we have significant dust problems right now, even though the lake is down considerably," said Eric Millus, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
Frankel said that proposed dams and diversions on the Bear River could lower the Great Salt Lake by 5 feet. The state says that estimate resulted from an incorrect analysis.
"The average long-term effect on the lake is going to be 6 inches of reduction," Millus said.
Tage Flint, the director of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, said it's a bad idea for critics to make dire predictions without proper data. He said rigorous studies will be done before the Bear River project ever moves forward.
"We're going to study these things ad nauseum," Flint said. "We'll know the impacts much better than the Californians did some hundred years ago."
Frankel insists that the Bear River project is a bad idea, and an unnecessary one if Utahns would step up efforts to conserve water.
"Those water salesmen are selling us a bill of goods," Frankel said. "In this case, billions of dollars of unnecessary spending on a water project that we just don't need. Period."
If the Bear River project is ever done, Utah officials say it will be several decades in the future. It's designed to meet water needs that will result from a predicted doubling of the state's population.