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Lake drained for LA water at center of dust lawsuit

Owens Lake
Owens Lake is about 200 miles north of Los Angeles.Damian Dovarganes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The powerful Los Angeles Department of Water and Power sued air regulators Friday over demands to control dust from Owens Lake nearly a century after the exploding metropolis siphoned water to quench its growing thirst.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Fresno, marks the latest salvo in a bitter back-and-forth over water rights in the arid region that was set in motion in 1913, when Los Angeles began diverting water from the lake 200 miles to its north. The lake went dry in 1926 and has since been plagued with massive dust storms and poor air quality.

The scandal created by the diversion project was fodder for the 1974 film "Chinatown," and hard feelings persist in rural Owens Valley, where many locals see the utility as a parasitic neighbor. The aqueduct was dynamited repeatedly after increased pumping in the 1920s combined with a drought to ruin many local farms.

Since a 1998 agreement, Los Angeles has spent $1.2 billion to tamp down the dust there as part of the nation's largest dust mitigation project, mainly by putting water back into a 40-square-mile area of the lakebed. The utility is currently working to control dust in another 2-square-mile parcel.

But recent orders from the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District to increase the dust mitigation area by 3 square miles are excessive and wasteful, the lawsuit alleges. The utility does not believe dust from the area in question was caused by its century-old actions and says it is not responsible.

The utility will honor its commitment and maintain the work it's already done, but it wants a permanent agreement about where its responsibilities end, officials said.

The lawsuit, which also names the California Air Resources Board, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, asks the court for relief from the "systematic and unlawful issuance to the city of dust control orders and fee assessments."

The additional dust control project would cost the Department of Water and Power up to $400 million, and ratepayers already pay $90 a year for dust mitigation at Owens Lake, said Ron Nichols, the department's general manager. The city uses 30 billion gallons annually — enough to fill the Rose Bowl each day to overflowing for one year — to keep dust down, he said.

"We're pouring that onto the lake, and the issue is, it's just a colossal waste of water," Nichols said. "Our fundamental problem is that we are being singled out because of our customers and Los Angeles being considered as having deep pockets. They think we're the only ones who can pay for dust that we believe is occurring naturally."

Ted Schade, the control district's air pollution control officer, said by filing the lawsuit, the city was trying to back out of agreements solidified in 1997 and 2006. He disputed claims that the utility was not responsible for the dust and said the city was breaking its promises to Owens Valley.

The utility was testing the limits of its obligations in court, he said, because it hadn't realized the true expense it was facing.

"They had hoped that they would be done spending money and putting water in Owens Lake," Schade said in a phone interview. "We realize that and we realize that the city has limited monetary and water resources and we're willing to work with them — but they just can't say, We're not willing to do more.'"

Water experts and environmentalists said the lawsuit was symptomatic of a much bigger issue: An ongoing shortage of cheap water in the state and decades-long tensions between rural areas and urban areas over water rights.

"It's sort of been a landlord-tenant relationship," said Steven Erie, director of the urban studies and planning program at the University of California, San Diego. "This is the latest chapter in long-standing and tension-filled history between the two ... and it has affected the discussion and the framing of every agricultural-to-urban transfer in California from then on."

The agency argues that expanding dust control means the utility will lean even more on other water sources, which could impact supply in other parts of the state and increase air pollution from pumping operations.

Peter Gleick, president of the non-partisan Pacific Institute in Oakland, said the Los Angeles utility could address the Owens Lake demands by further conservation.

"It's no longer a question of expanding supply, it's also now a question of reducing inefficient use and reducing inappropriate demand," he said. "Los Angeles has been very good about reducing demand ... but there's a lot more that they could do."