Part 2: What happened to the Owens Valley?

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The lake bed is awash in color because of salt-loving bacteria (Photo: Matt Holzman)

Listen below: Madeleine Brand reports on the Owens Valley

Looking down on the dry Owens Valley from the road to the Mt. Whitney portal. (Photo: Matt Holzman)
Looking down on the dry Owens Valley from the road to the Mt. Whitney portal. (Photo: Matt Holzman)

Drive from Los Angeles up the I-5 and you hit the Owens River Valley and the beginning of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, called the  “intake.” This is a small concrete bridge with four wheels on top. Each wheel opens a water channel. And etched in the concrete are the now-faded words,  “Los Angeles Aqueduct.”

 The intake of the LA Aqueduct near Bishop. CA (Photo: Matt Holzman)
The intake of the LA Aqueduct near Bishop. CA With the words “Los Angeles Aqueduct” (Photo: Matt Holzman)

Los Angeles is a permanent presence in the Owens Valley— you can see white DWP trucks with the city seal on their doors parked in front of a cafe 200 miles from LA’s city limits. DWP workers live and socialize here.

Chris Plakos, a DWP spokesperson is familiar with the Owens Valley and its river. “Looking at this river here, it hardly looks like the mighty Mississippi,” says Chris Plakos, a DWP spokesperson, “It is not a big river. Go to Idaho. Go to Washington or Oregon they have big rivers.”

DWP Spokesperson Chris Plakos
DWP Spokesperson Chris Plakos

However, this little bit of water was at the center of the fight between William Mulholland and the residents of the Owens Valley.  As Mulholland acquired more land,  residents lost access to their water source and realized that their valley had been stripped of water and – with it – their future prosperity. The Aqueduct wasn’t built without a fight. When residents realized they were being dried out of the valley, some dynamited parts of the aqueduct, and hundreds occupied a part of the aqueduct called the Alabama Gates in protest. They camped out there and shut off the water. That demonstration was peaceful, but Mulholland sent armed guards.

Daris Moxley, a rancher in the Owens Valley, explains that raising cattle is just a hobby. You can't make a living here.
Daris Moxley, a rancher in the Owens Valley, explains that raising cattle is just a hobby. You can’t make a living here.

Soon after Los Angeles began diverting the water that fed Owens Lake, the lake went dry and the dust of the lake bed was exposed to the howling winds of the valley. This has caused terrible problems for the residents and the environment. The dust is among the most dangerous air pollutants — worse than belching smokestacks – because it contains extremely fine particles that stick in your lungs when you breathe. In fact, Owens Lake is the biggest single source of dust pollution in the United States.

The lake bed is awash in color because of salt-loving bacteria (Photo: Matt Holzman)
To mitigate the toxic dust storms created when the lake went dry because of the aqueduct, they've laid down gravel on one part of the lake...
To mitigate the toxic dust storms created when the lake went dry because of the aqueduct, they’ve laid down gravel on one part of the lake…
...and they're using water on other parts - enough for half a million homes a year
…and they’re using water on other parts – enough for half a million homes a year.

Nearly 80 years after the dust storms began and after 30 years of legal battles, Los Angeles began dealing with the problem and established a has a dust mitigation project. As part of this project, $1.5 billion has been spent on gravel to keep the dust down in the dry lake. In other places, the DWP is watering the lake, literally putting water back into the lake. Instead of going into our taps, it is now being used just to reduce the dust. Los Angeles uses 90 thousand acre feet of water a year on the lake, which is enough to cover the water needs of 500 thousand people.  It’s enough to fill the Rose Bowl every day.

And we’re paying for it. LA’s water bills have gone up because DWP needs to replace that water by buying it elsewhere. And that’s an expensive proposition.

On the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, we look at William Mulholland’s legacy and the on-going quest to quench LA’s thirst. More at: Power & Water: The Los Angeles Aqueduct at 100  This series was reported by Madeleine Brand and Saul Gonzalez and produced by Matt Holzman.