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The Eternal Dustbowl 

Paying for the sins of L.A.’s water barons has created a half-billion-dollar boondoggle

Wednesday, Mar 22 2006
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Beyond the arid vacancy of the Mojave Desert, U.S. 395 enters the austere majesty of the Owens Valley. To the east are the reddish peaks of the Cosos. The snow-covered Sierra Nevada rise along the western side. For miles ahead, the view seems endless, except for the Inyo-White range, which curls around the northeast edge of the valley. This is one of the good days, when the air is clear and crisp.

Midway up the valley, near the town of Olancha, lie the remains of Owens Lake. Back in 1904, immigrant water baron William Mulholland arrived here with Frederick Eaton, the retired L.A. mayor and water hound. They had ambitions to solve a drought and expand the city into the San Fernando Valley. In seizing their prize they could not have pictured the destruction they would cause by diverting water to Los Angeles.

Today, what once was a 100-square-mile body of water is mostly a massive blob of white alkali. Locals breathe its metallic dust; they can taste it. On a bad day, the dust rises off the lake’s skeleton in vicious, tornado-like plumes, forcing children and the elderly to stay indoors. It is the largest source of coarse-particle air pollution in the country — second in the world only to the Sahara Desert.

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Holding L.A. responsible for this mess has become an obsession in these parts. One day last November, Mike Patterson, a local businessman and self-taught jack-of-all-trades, offered a tour of the scarred region, along with Don Odell, a semiretired lawyer and former member of the Inyo County grand jury. Odell and Patterson know the local history as well as they know the odor of Owens Lake dust. They make an odd pair: Patterson is tall, ruddy and wears a Stetson; Odell is elderly and uses a cane.

Patterson helps Odell into his truck and drives south from Odell’s ranch in Lone Pine toward Cerro Gordo, a preserved ghost town in the mountains east of Owens Lake that Patterson owns. On the way up, the two swap tales about the history of the Cerro Gordo mines and a dried-up boomtown called Swansea, also owned by Patterson. Lead, copper, silver and gold once came by steamer from Swansea across Owens Lake en route to Los Angeles. Cerro Gordo lode built Los Angeles as much as Owens Valley water did, Patterson says.

The canyon is steep, and the half-hour drive bumpy. Cerro Gordo Road cuts through 400 million years of exposed strata topped with creosote, cactus, greasewood, piñon pine and Joshua trees. Near the top of the mountain, Cerro Gordo comes into view. Farther beyond Cerro Gordo, 8,500 feet above sea level, is an L.A. Department of Water and Power–owned telemetry tower. “My Uncle Cecil let ’em build that thing,” Patterson says, climbing out of the truck to take a leak. “I think he said yes for a six-pack.”

The view started off well enough but now reveals the tragedy of the valley — and the questionable half-billion-dollar project undertaken by L.A.’s DWP to thwart the toxic dust storms. As the sun sinks behind a Sierra ridge to the west, colors of orange, red and blue-gold with streaks of magenta appear on the horizon. The lakebed below is cast in a disturbing light. To control dust, the DWP has created more than 20 square miles of shallow flood zones and grown a little salt grass. The fading sun’s silvery reflections on the puddles of water are broken up by the machinery of an irrigation system: 55 pump stations, 83 miles of elevated roads and berms and 6,666 irrigation bubblers. Buried somewhere in the middle of 10,000 feet of corrosive sediment that rests on a high water table are 39 miles of large pipeline, 202 miles of medium pipeline, 146 miles of buried drain line and 3,624 miles of buried drip tubing.

From this towering vantage point, Patterson notes the lakebed is shaped like a giant trapezoid. “Or a bighorn sheep without legs .?.?. or a giant bladder. Some say it’s the same dimensions as the Sea of Galilee. Does that make this the Golan Heights?”

Looking down at the starved lake, he says, “If you had an environmental heart, it’d almost make you cry.”

Death to the lake came shortly after an 11-year span, from 1913 to 1924, with the opening of the Mulholland-designed Los Angeles Aqueduct, fed by a dirt channel cut into the Owens River near the town of Independence. Some 62 miles of river drained into what has become a major source of tap water, delivered by the DWP.

No one knew it would turn out this way, or how far-fetched it would seem eight decades later to fix the lake. Odell muses about his days arguing over a solution down in L.A. City Hall and a conversation he once overheard between Mayor Tom Bradley and an LAPD detective who investigated the Black Dahlia murder named Ralph Asdel. “I’m standing there one day and the mayor is talking to Asdel about Owens Valley and he says, ‘Ralph, someday we’re gonna have to fill that lake.’?”

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