By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Dale Gillette, a world-renowned physicist at NOAA, has a dilemma. His current research relies on air quality data collected by Great Basin. Owens Lake is one of the great natural laboratories in the world, Gillette says. In 1991, he visited with scientists from the former Soviet Union and France to study vertical flux of dust in relation to horizontal sand movement. “Owens Lake has been good for me. But the best solution may very well be different than the one [Great Basin] chose. Ellen [Hardebeck] is a decisive person. It was a deal both sides said they could live with.”
Some feel that efforts to minimize cost have been ignored. James Richards, a professor of ecology at UC Davis who has done research on Owens Lake since 1992, submitted a proposal to the DWP in 2005 to grow shrubs and maintain them affordably. But of the 30 square miles of the mitigation project, most of the vegetation has been phased out, despite millions spent on an irrigation system and on cultivating salt grass. The reliance on salt grass for the existing 2.5 square miles of vegetation rules out several plants native to the Owens Valley that might grow in the lakebed, Richards says, such as greasewood, Parry’s saltbush and bush seepweed. He says his proposal sits idle. Another growing season and a year’s worth of information is lost.
When contacted recently, he let out a heavy sigh. “Scientific results don’t always come out the way [government] wants.” Richards says the DWP and CH2M Hill have been successful to a certain extent growing salt grass. “But a lot of my work is on shrubs, which use less water than salt grass or irrigation.” He estimated the DWP is using the equivalent of 31 inches of rain per year on the lake. Owens Valley gets about 5 to 6 inches of actual rain, he says. “There are shrubs in the area that survive on that much rain. Getting them started may be expensive at first, but over time it will save money and water. What’s the lifespan of all that equipment buried in the lake, not to mention the maintenance cost?”
Pierre St. Amand, a retired Navy scientist and board member of the Indian Wells Valley Water District, lives in Ridgecrest in a large adobe house off Route 178, a couple of miles from the China Lake Naval Weapons Station. His house, which he designed, heats and cools itself without using electricity. St. Amand, goateed and sporting a fleece pullover, settles onto a sofa in his sunken living room on a recent Friday. He moves slowly and uses a hearing aid. As far as St. Amand is concerned, sand motion is not the problem, and flooding the dry lake with water definitely is not the answer. “Is it too late to try to turn back?” he is asked. “No, they’re just headed in the wrong direction, is all.”
In 1986, St. Amand published a report titled “Dust Storms From Owens and Mono Valleys,” in which he identified causes and effects and offered solutions to the dust problem — of particular concern to the Navy when it tested aircraft and conducted training exercises near the northwest corner of the base, which is not far from Owens Valley. A canceled flight test could cost the Navy up to $50,000. Sometimes several tests per day were canceled, with dust storms lasting up to two days, according to a 1996 letter to Ellen Hardebeck from Captain C.A. Stephenson.
St. Amand identified 10 possible solutions, including treating the lakebed with chemicals to bind the alkali crust. The best approach, he says, has been overlooked: a series of concentric polders, or ditches, like in Holland, to wash alkali from surface soils via windmill-operated pumps into a sump, where solids could be collected. Cost: $25 million over 15 years. Or, lower the water table to keep the alkali from being pushed to the surface, where it kills plants and forms a toxic crust.
“Did you send this report to Great Basin?” St. Amand is asked. “Hell yes,” he replies. “The air district never pays much attention to people outside its own community. You are digging into a period of discontent over the taking of Owens River water. The exercise as far as scientists and environmentalists is concerned is different from that of the people of Owens Valley who wanted to stick DWP with the tab. Then, when DWP received my report, they sent a man up to tell a Navy admiral to knock it off with these reports.”
The main problem St. Amand has noticed on the lake is the chemical compounds of most of the substances that cause dust are made up mostly of water. “They take water into their molecular structure, crystallize, and the volume increases out of the clay surface of the lakebed. Putting water on the lake is not like spraying down your driveway or a construction site. The salt crust is like a flower. Water actually makes the crust grow. And it doesn’t take much wind to create dust. .?.?. They screwed around for donkey’s years up there and never analyzed the water content of the clay over time,” St. Amand marvels, leafing to a chart titled “Reactions Occurring on the Playa Surface as a Function of Temperature and Humidity.” “They started with the finished product.”