Monday, September 17, 2012

Owens Lake

Recently, while doing some web research, I discovered an interesting bit of California history that I had never heard of. 

Just east of the Sierras and west of Death Valley there is a place called Owens lake.  At one point this saline lake was a healthy 12 mile wide 50ft deep lake, with a thriving ecosystem.  It existed as such for millions of years and showed no signs of letting up.  In 1913, that all changed.

As the city of Los Angeles was really starting boom, and Hollywood(Land) was poised to be the epicenter of the entertainment industry there was a problem that was beginning to surface that really needed to be addressed.  Water.  Where was Los Angeles going to get it?  The answer lie just a few miles to the north at Owens Lake and the river that it fed

Deemed to be for the "Greater good" of the people of our nation, the Owens River was diverted through a massive infrastructural network of aqueducts to bring all of its water to Los Angeles.   Rather than feed the ecosystem it had provided water to for millions of years, it was now feeding the growth of the what historian Kevin Starr has called “the most exquisite invented garden in history."

For the many years that followed the Owens River diversion, the city of Los Angeles recieved 100% of it's water supply from the Owen's River, and as a result, the 110 square mile lake gradually dried up to become what it is today, a wasteland of toxic dust.

In 1987, the EPA declared the area surrounding Owens to be  "the worst dust pollution problem in the United States", and shortly after ordered that the city of Los Angeles take care of the problem.  The LADWP came up with some really off the wall solutions as to what they could do to fix the issue. They suggested coating the lakebed with sewage, or treated solid waste; they suggested layering the lakebed with tires; they considered spraying chemicals on its surface, and experimented with several others, all of which were found to increase rather than relieve the toxicity of the lakebed. The solution ended up being a return of water to the lakebed in order to keep the dust at bay. A sprinkler system was installed with the goal of seeding salt grass throughout the area.  The result of this is what can be seen today.

The dried up lake bed now consists of multiple parceled off pools of water (the salt grass didn't take) each of which has it's own varying degrees of different types of toxicity.  This is why some of the lakes are a blood red, emerald green, and electric blue.  While beautiful in the color that the metal and salt deposits in the water produce, it is a reminder of the consequence that nature pays in order for our civilization to "thrive".  This bears a similar mark to the recent draining of what was once the 4 largest lakes in the world, the Aral Sea, .

Aral Sea Before and After

The monetary cost of trying to bring back Owens lake was a whopping $540 million dollars, with $17.5 million per year dedicated to keep the operation running.  The environmental consequence is one that we cannot put a price to.  Since the return of water to Owen's, birds have begun to return to the lake.  Normally, this should be a sign of rebuilding, however the water that the birds have returned to is poison, and thus the returning birds have begun to die as a result of the toxic pools that now comprise Owens Lake.  

While I love the city I live in, it is often a bit disappointing to find out what the cost was in order for it to become what it is today.  I would like to think that the mode of thinking that led to the destruction of Owen's belongs to a moment of history that we have moved past, however, given what recently took place in the Aral Sea, I don't think that is the case.

For more information on Owens, the following website tells the story in greater depth

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