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
Owens Valley stretches 100 miles from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States, to the lowest, Death Valley. In spring the snowmelt from the Sierra produces flows that are diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct — on average more than 300,000 acre-feet per year. Locals call it “the water factory.” Owens Lake dust is the factory's exhaust. That makes the dry lake the smokestack, which requires maintenance, they say.
The lake has intrigued, seduced and vexed scientists. Many have rooted around in dust suits and toiled in scorching heat and wind looking for answers to the toxins that rise to the surface of the lakebed as if there were still water in the lake. More often than not, scientists’ recommendations about how to fix the lake have been ignored or rejected.
Professor Thomas Cahill of UC Davis has been a passionate voice for organic rehabilitation. Known among colleagues as a renaissance man of science, Cahill, director of UC Davis’ DELTA Group, which specializes in chemical engineering, is a physicist, atmospheric scientist and a research professor in engineering. He discovered dangerous levels of fine-particle air pollution rising from the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center after 9/11. He was among the first to study pollution levels of the 1997 Kuwaiti oil fires.
Owens Lake has gotten under Cahill’s skin. “Great Basin decided to take a ride on the back of a tiger, the DWP. The problem is that CH2M Hill provided the saddle.” Cahill sees inconsistent, perhaps misleading results on air quality around Owens Lake. He points to a slow decrease in dust in recent years that could be attributed to wet winters. “Look at 2003,” he says. “There’s a spike in pollution. That could be DWP’s contractors bringing in all their heavy machinery, wrecking natural sand dunes and stirring up dust.”
Cahill took on Owens Lake in the 1990s after helping Great Basin make its case for the need to fix nearby Mono Lake — also drained by the DWP — which after years of litigation is being restored. In 1979, he and the Air Quality Group at UC Davis’ Crocker Nuclear Laboratory documented for CARB that significant amounts of sulfates and toxic airborne particles rise off the saline crust that forms atop the alkaline-laced mud on the bed of Owens Lake.
Using lessons learned from his decade of research at Mono Lake, Cahill proposed studying whether naturally vegetated sand dunes could be developed on Owens Lake, like the ones that arose after the great earthquake at Lone Pine in the 19th century. He believed a series of fences could trap windblown sand and stop it from loosening the sulfates on the crust of the lakebed. Accumulated sand could form dunes to support plant life if irrigated, Cahill argued, which would restore the lake with less water and money.
In 1991, a group of about 20 scientists from UC Davis and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, or NOAA, received funding from the State Lands Commission and CARB and proposed a small-scale mitigation project to last from 1992 to 1993, and a larger project to last from 1994 to 1999. The sand fences worked, Cahill says. Dunes developed and cut down the dust. The group estimated it could achieve 80 percent dust reduction at a cost of $9.7 million over eight years. In a final report to the State Lands Commission in 1995, the UC Davis group claimed 91 percent dust control and stated that, “sand-fences are a well established, cost efficient and environmentally benign technique that can be applied to large scale mitigation of moving sand and blowing dust.”
But Great Basin — and the DWP — preferred to pour water on the lake. Hardebeck had made up her mind that flooding the playa, along with gravel and vegetation, were the most desirable control measures. Most agree that Hardebeck badly wanted to create a habitat for shoreline birds. She and Cahill argued bitterly over strategy. Cahill, in a December 5, 1996, memo to Hardebeck wrote, “[These] alternatives are merely temporary fixes. Since [they] will not result in a stable, ecologically sound end point, support [for them] will involve long term expenditures of cash, water and personnel.” Cahill cautioned that once commenced, a water-based mitigation approach “could collapse in startlingly little time” if discontinued.
Cahill calls Hardebeck’s demand for 98 percent dust reduction an unreasonable goal that served as an excuse to reject scientific approaches that would not allow Great Basin to profit. “It’s an artificial number. Great Basin got cozy with DWP and decided they could get a lot of money for themselves,” he says of the annual dust-mitigation assessments that the DWP pays. Cahill took one more shot in 1997 with a proposal to reduce dust by 90 percent on the worst area of the lake, the South Sand Sheet. His projected startup cost was $1.3 million, with an annual maintenance cost of $700,000 per year. “DWP cut off funding, Great Basin rejected the proposal and in came the bulldozers.”
Cahill’s colleagues are less outspoken. Some, like professor Bruce White, a wind-studies specialist from UC Davis, are reluctant to stoke the controversy. Still, White agrees with Cahill on key points: “98 percent dust reduction is too high,” he says. “It may be impossible to make a connection between science and the economics of the situation and feel good about it. Projects like this are run by politics, perhaps too much so.”
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