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Owens Lake's Dust: Airborne Health Hazard

April 02, 1989|KEVIN RODERICK | Times Staff Writer

But the dust problem has helped to galvanize a local group that contends Inyo County officials are ignoring it to avoid scaring away tourists, the mainstay of the local economy.

The group, the Eastern Sierra Environmental and Water Conservation Assn., includes activists fighting plans by Los Angeles to pump more ground water from the valley and local Indian bands. "Nobody mentions it, and it's the worst problem in the area," said attorney Odell, who is active in the group.

'Reasonable Measures'

Although the lake bed itself is the property of the State Lands Commission, state law allows the local air district to impose "reasonable measures" on the city of Los Angeles to ease the dust problem. The city already pays the cost of most air quality testing.

Any solution is expected to be costly, perhaps as much as $1 million per square mile, and there are 46 square miles of lake bed where dust kicks up.

The Inyo County Grand Jury last year recommended refilling Owens Lake with water now piped south in the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the channel laid across 230 miles of desert early this century by William Mulholland.

That recommendation was never acknowledged by Inyo County officials or in the local press, and the idea of persuading Los Angeles to give up the water is not regarded as realistic.

'Have to Be Practical'

"Everybody knows the simple solution is to put the water back in the lake," said Keith Bright, chairman of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors. "But where is the water going to come from? You have to be practical."

Other ideas have included sand fencing, sprinkling the lake with water to settle the dust when high winds are forecast, and even covering the lake bed with four inches of gravel.

Johnny Marmolejo, 40, grew up in Keeler and has spent a lot of time on the Owens Lake bed, an uninviting place of brine ponds and miles of salt many feet deep. Quicksand has been known to swallow up cattle ("we'd see a big old hole and a little batch of fur") and the dust kicked up by boots can burn eyes and skin. He is skeptical of the gravel idea.

"There isn't enough gravel in the world," he said.

Long-Distance Lake Dust Harmful dust from the Owens Lake bed is blown over a wide area of the deserts and into the South Coast air basin, most often by winter winds. In high concentrations it can cause health problems. Lower levels can reduce visibility and damage paint finishes. The problem was created when Los Angeles drained the saline Owens Lake in 1926. Source: Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District

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