LADWP, Great Basin Unified appear to reach judgment to end all judgments.
As of November 14, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (Great Basin) have reached a lasting agreement about the scope and implementation of LADWP dust mitigation efforts at Owens Lake.
The agreement is actually a stipulated judgment issued by the Sacramento Court, clarified Great Basin Air Pollution Control Officer Ted Schade, which allows it to be enforceable in court, granting it greater authority.
While the LADWP and Great Basin have agreed on particular dust mitigation projects in the past, this is the first time both agencies have capped the LADWP’s maximum liability for dust control at a specific number: 53.4 square miles.
“Current orders are in place for 48.6 square miles, so Great Basin has a contingency area of 4.8 square miles,” Schade explained. “All or part of this contingency area can be ordered by Great Basin at any time and DWP cannot appeal the orders.”
The LADWP is currently within 3.6 square miles of meeting the 48.6 square mile goal, and has already reduced blowing dust by 90 percent since efforts began in 1999.
The stipulated judgment also provides the first real mechanism for the LADWP to reduce water use on the lakebed, while still mitigating the dust hazard created when the LADWP diverted Owens Lake tributary streams in the early nineteenth century.
LADWP diversions reduced the once 110-mile saline lake to a 26 square mile brine pool by the mid-1920’s. The resulting dust storms turned Owens Lake into the country’s single largest source of particulate matter, said Schade.
However, in order to mitigate this hazard, the LADWP press release states, “the LADWP uses about 25 billion gallons of water annually and has spent $1.3 billion since 2000 to control dust at Owens Lake. The equivalent of nearly two months out of every Los Angeles ratepayer’s annual water bill is spent on Owens Lake dust mitigation, including the cost of replacing the water used there.”
The Nov. 14 stipulated judgment allows the LADWP to use waterless dust control methods, including “tillage.” A handy definition of tillage, courtesy of the L.A. Times, is as follows: “It involves using tractors to turn moist, lakebed clay into furrows and basketball-sized clods of dirt.”
According to the press release, this change would save nearly 8,600 acre-feet, or nearly 3 billion gallons, of water this year, enough water to serve 43,000 people.
“DWP has been testing tillage of clay soils on the lakebed for the past few years,” Schade said. “Great Basin has been hesitant to approve tillage because it will inevitably break down and need to be retilled, and if the soil moisture is not right, retilling will cause the soil to become powdery and more emissive.”
But under the stipulated judgment, the LADWP’s method of choice will be tillage with a shallow flood backup.
“Tillage with shallow flood backup allows DWP to till only in areas that have a shallow flooding infrastructure,” Schade said. “Flooded areas will be dried out, tilled and then observed. As long as the tilled areas remain nonemissive, all is well.
“But when the tillage eventually begins to break down, Great Basin will issue a reflood order. DWP must flood the area within about a month to reset the soil. The water can then be shut off, dried and retilled … this is not a waterless method, but rather a very low-water-use method, because most of the time the area will be dry, tilled and nonemissive.”
Schade said the LADWP would also go back to its shallow flood areas, large pools of water visible on the lakebed, and convert them to tillage areas.
Yet because the shallow flood areas have become important habitat for birds that once stopped in vast numbers at Owens Lake during their migratory journeys, “in order to secure permission from the underlying land owner, the California State Lands Commission, DWP has to commit to enhance wildlife habitat values in untilled areas equal to the habitat values reduced in the tilled areas,” Schade said. “In other words, the lakebed’s overall habitat value must be maintained.”
All of these mitigation measures will be overseen by a new Owens Lake Scientific Advisory Panel, with panel members selected from the country’s scientific community by The National Academy of Science.
The LADWP must complete the remaining 3.6 square miles of mitigation work by December 31, 2017. “Any ordered contingency measures (4.8 sq. mi. maximum) must be in place within 3 years of ordering,” Schade said.
LADWP and Los Angeles officials responded enthusiastically to the stipulated agreement.
“We are extremely pleased to approve this historic agreement that is the result of the hard work of many people over many years,” said LADWP Commission President Mel Levine. “With California in the midst of an unprecedented drought, this agreement is especially important in that it will save the City an enormous amount water and money.”
“After years of conflict, we finally have an agreement that will save billions of gallons of water and millions of dollars for LADWP ratepayers and will address environmental issues at Owens Lake,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “… This is a significant win for ratepayers and our environment in both Los Angeles and the Owens Valley.”
Great Basin Board Chairman Ron Hames also voiced his approval. “The first rule of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else,” he said. “The Owens Valley will forever be connected to the City of Los Angeles by the water from the Owens Valley. We know Los Angeles relies on that water, but we also need clean air and it is Los Angeles’ responsibility to comply with the clean-air laws and protect public health. This agreement allows for both clean air for the families in the Owens Valley and clean water for Los Angeles.”
Schade, as always, had the last word: “I’ve been at war with the DWP for 24 years, two months and 15 days,” he said in a Nov. 14 Los Angeles Times interview. “The fighting is over, and the path forward is clear.”