By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Scientists from all over the world had studied the problem since the 1970s. Officials at the nearby China Lake Naval Weapons Station claimed loss of visibility that hampered flight programs when dust storms raged. Former Great Basin director Chuck Fryxell held the DWP’s feet to the fire in the early 1980s when he denied the DWP a permit to tap a geothermal electrical generating source at Coso Junction. It’s been a struggle ever since, Schade says. “Locals were skeptical the problem could be fixed. DWP denied that water-diversion was the cause.”
The dispute led to a state law known as SB 270, sponsored by Los Angeles. According to court records, Los Angeles Assistant City Attorney Kenneth Downey stated that the city wanted Great Basin to “keep its hands off” the aqueduct supply of water; Great Basin wanted funding for research for air-quality problems. SB 270, enacted in 1983, prevented Great Basin from cutting off Los Angeles’ water for any reason, but allowed Great Basin to conduct studies, impose dust-control measures and collect fees to reduce the dust. In 1997, the DWP refused to pay a $1.5 million assessment for vegetation research, prompting a bitter lawsuit. CH2M Hill, in its role as the DWP’s expert witness, claimed vegetation would not survive on the lakebed, Schade says.
The hardball tactics left a mark on Schade. “They tried to delay in court and put us out of business.” The DWP argued that Great Basin refused to conduct a health study to justify the expense of controlling dust on Owens Lake. A court of appeals eventually sided with Great Basin, but meanwhile, CARB deadlocked on a proposal to end the dust controversy, setting the stage for a showdown. Ron Deaton, then the City Council’s chief legislative analyst, sent a delegation to Bishop to negotiate with Great Basin, headed at the time by Ellen Hardebeck. “The negotiations went nowhere,” says Schade. “DWP was not committed to fixing the lake.”
Then one day in 1998, as Sacramento lawmakers were considering a bill to force the DWP to submit to Great Basin’s authority, Schade’s phone rang. “It was the new general manager of the DWP,” he recalls. “I pick up the phone and hear, ‘Hi, my name is Dave Freeman. I understand I got an air-pollution problem that I need to do something about.’?”
A few miles from downtown Bishop in a modest neighborhood near the base of the Sierra, Ellen Hardebeck reaches for the landmark agreement she negotiated in 1998. Hardebeck retired as director of Great Basin in 2004 but stays in contact with Schade. “It’ll be hard to undo the whole thing,” she says, clutching a copy of the State Implementation Plan, or SIP, made possible by former DWP general manager S. David Freeman, now president of the Harbor Commission and a close friend of the mayor’s. “It’s been approved by the state and says if new dust conditions crop up, DWP has to fix it.”
Hardebeck was a fervent regulator who personalized Great Basin’s struggle to hold the DWP accountable for the disaster at Owens Lake. Some say she got the better of Freeman, who was desperate to settle. Others say she went too far in her demands, which paved the way for CH2M Hill to go from Great Basin’s adversary to the DWP’s primary consultant working side by side with Great Basin. Schade calls Hardebeck “my hero.” Before DWP fees allowed Great Basin to hire more than 20 new employees and buy its own building, Hardebeck, Schade and deputy air pollution control officer Duane Ono literally had worked out of her garage while fighting the DWP in court and in the Legislature. “It was an exciting time,” she says.
In 2003, the plan came up for review. The 2003 SIP gave the DWP until the end of 2006 to fix a total of 30 square miles — meaning cover it with enough water, plants or gravel to reduce PM-10 emissions by 98 percent. To monitor compliance, the DWP purchased a cache of sensitive air-measuring devices for Great Basin to place around the lake. “We negotiated with DWP in good faith. We promised them extraordinary access to air-quality data in exchange for them giving a benefit to us.”
Recently, new threats to Great Basin have emerged. The EPA has proposed to exempt rural areas from PM-10 standards. If enacted, the proposal would let the DWP off the hook — though state lawmakers could pass stiffer laws to preserve air standards. Locals are on edge. The Inyo Register has quoted DWP board president Mary Nichols as saying she wants to “take another look” at dust-control methods. Nichols called the project a “mud flat, and a very expensive one at that.” She questioned whether the “best science” had been applied. Nichols’ comments came after a massive dust storm. Hardebeck took exception to the negative remarks.
“I don’t think Nichols understands we’ve been testing control measures on the lake since the 1970s,” she says, the snow-capped Sierra visible through her living-room window. “Shallow flooding so clearly works. It’s simple: Pour water on the lake and let it run downhill. You can see it work, and the water doesn’t interact with anything except to evaporate. It’s easy to deliver. You can grow grass with it. If Nichols wants to find a better way, then fine. But a deal’s a deal. The law is the law. DWP can never walk away as a polluter. Besides, how much money did DWP make selling water for 80 years?”
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