Adding another chapter to an already storied history, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD) have reached a Settlement Agreement regarding two contested areas of land at or near Owens Lake.
Once a 110 mile saline lake, Owens Lake was reduced to a 26 square mile brine pool by the mid-1920s due to the diversion of water from the Lake into the 223 mile Los Angeles Aqueduct. This change exposed the dry, salty lakebed to the elements, particularly the wind, creating massive dust storms chock full of harmful particulate matter. Particulate matter, also known as PM10, is a fine dust that gets past the body’s filters to penetrate the deepest part of the lungs. Too much exposure to the dust causes respiratory problems and raises the risk of heart attack, as the buildup prevents the lungs from providing oxygen to the blood.
The National Ambient Air Quality Standard for PM10 is set at 150-micrograms/cubic meter for a 24-hour average, said GBUAPCD Air Control Officer Ted Schade. Yet in 2005, 1,400-micrograms/cubic meter of PM10 were measured over a 24-hour period at Keeler, a small town directly adjacent to Owens Lake. Moreover, according to the GBUAPCD website, studies have demonstrated that the National Ambient Air Quality Standard can be exceeded more than 50 miles away from the Lake, affecting about 40,000 permanent residents from Ridgecrest to Bishop.
In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated that the LADWP begin a dust mitigation project in order to meet federal air quality standards. The LADWP reached an agreement with the local Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD), and in 2001 began mitigation efforts, which now include not only pools of shallow flooding, but also vegetation and gravel.
The LADWP has estimated the expense of its mitigation efforts at $1.2 billion.
Yet GBUAPCD believes the LADWP has more work to do, said Schade. Although the LADWP currently mitigates 42 square miles on the lakebed, GBUAPCD projects a maximum of 48 square miles needed to fully complete the mitigation project. Each of these additional areas, which add up to the extra 6 square miles, “causes an excess of air standards,” said Schade.
One of those areas currently contested by the LADWP is the subject of the Settlement Agreement between the LADWP and GBUAPCD. Area “7a” made news this year when the LADWP revealed that its archeologists had discovered Paiute artifacts there in 2009, including the remains of Paiute Indians massacred by white settlers and U.S. troops in 1863. The discovery put a hold on requested mitigation at the 3.1 square mile site. LADWP argued that 328 acres containing cultural artifacts should be excluded from the nearly 2,000-acre mitigation area.
The LADWP/GUAPCD Settlement approved on Thursday, June 27 by the Great Basin District Governing Board granted the LADWP an extension on dust mitigation at 7a, pushing the deadline for the installation of mitigation infrastructure to 2015, and for a fully compliant vegetation cover (about 20% cover), to 2017. This extension will allow the LADWP time to acquire the necessary leases from State Lands, as well as permits from other agencies.
The Settlement also set aside those 328 acres on 7a as an Eligible Cultural Resource (ECR) area, designated “7b.” The 7b area has room to expand, should LADWP discover any other cultural resources during mitigation efforts, but will still be subject to future GBUAPCD order. The Settlement also stated that a Cultural Resource Task Force, composed of LADWP, GBUAPCD, State Lands, State Historical Preservation Office, and local Tribal Representatives, will determine how to manage the newly designated area.
Another area contested by the LADWP and GBUAPCD, but recently resolved by the Settlement, lies on the shore of Owens Lake. According to Schade, the Keeler Dunes create a dust hazard “that affects the most people the most often.” He noted evidence that the Keeler Dunes are not historic to Owens Lake, but began to appear in the 1940s-1950s. “But there is disagreement between [Great Basin] and the City over what caused that,” he said. The two entities were squared off for another confrontation, with fingers pointed at Caltrans as well as the LADWP, but happily, they have resolved their differences, Schade reported.
According to the Settlement, LADWP will provide $10 million to GBUAPCD to support Great Basin’s one half to one square mile “Keeler Project,” which aims to control harmful dust emissions from the Keeler Dunes. By receiving these funds, GBUAPCD takes on full responsibility for dust mitigation at that site, as well as the Swansea and Olancha dune sites. GBUAPCD will use none of these funds for public affairs; the total $10 million will go toward environmental impact analysis, design, permitting, construction, operation, maintenance, management, monitoring and other activities directly related to the dust emission control project at Keeler Dunes.
“The more of these things we can get off the table, the easier it will be to get Owens Lake under control,” said Schade.
Speaking after Thursday’s District Governing Board meeting, Schade, called the Settlement “very positive. Everybody is thrilled that we could overcome past animosity and lack of communication to reach an agreement that benefits everyone,” he said. “We’re all pleased with the outcome.”
(Photo: Charles W. Hull)