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California and the West

Owens Valley Wins Round on Pollution

Legislature: Senate committee, in setback for L.A., approves bill on controlling dust.

April 21, 1998|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Air quality regulators in the Owens Valley on Monday won the first round of a legislative fight with the city of Los Angeles over how to control chronic dust pollution from the dry bed of Owens Lake.

The Senate Environmental Quality Committee, on a 6-1 vote, approved a bill by Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale) that would require the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District to impose unspecified but potentially costly measures to mitigate the problems caused by tons of blowing dust.

The bill was enthusiastically endorsed by Democratic Sen. Tom Hayden of Los Angeles, the only Los Angeles legislator on the committee. The measure (SB 1376) now goes on to the Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

Approval of the bill was a setback for Los Angeles, which has tried to devise a compromise solution to the decades-long dust problem.

Fine dust particles are blown for at least 100 miles from the bed of Owens Lake, which went dry in the 1920s when the city diverted the lake's water 200 miles south to meet the demands of growing Los Angeles.

Los Angeles has accepted responsibility for the pollution, which is blamed for a range of lung and other health problems, but the city has been unable to put together a mitigation program acceptable to Great Basin air quality regulators.

In December, the city proposed a $60-million package that included flooding 9 square miles of the 110-square-mile lake with about 20,000 acre-feet of water a year, planting vegetation and spreading gravel over the lake bed to hold the soil in place.

The air district rejected the proposal as too little and demanded, among other things, that the lake receive 50,000 acre-feet of water.

At the time, the problem appeared to be headed for court. But then Knight, whose district includes areas affected by the dust, introduced his bill and brought the Legislature into the fight.

Knight's bill would give Great Basin officials the power to dictate mitigation terms to the city, at a potentially huge cost. It also would remove the city's ability to appeal orders from the Great Basin air district to the state Air Resources Board.

Ronald M. Cagle, Sacramento lobbyist for the city, told the committee that Los Angeles "already has lost a significant amount of its annual water resources . . . [and] simply doesn't have any more water resources to allocate" to Owens Lake.

Cagle also said the regional fight could spread statewide if Los Angeles were required to add more water to Owens Lake than it has proposed.

"Anything that we were to lose over there [in Owens Lake] would have to be made up in the [Sacramento-San Joaquin] Delta," he told the committee.

But Hayden challenged that notion, saying the city of Los Angeles has lagged far behind others in conserving water.

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