KEELER, Calif. — Behind the counter at the post office, the only going concern in this parched Owens Valley town of 75 souls, Geizel Rice can see it coming.
With maddening regularity, huge, boiling clouds of dust whip off the bone-dry bed of Owens Lake. Like a frothy tidal wave, the dust sends Keeler's hardy inhabitants fleeing for cover--and routinely creates the nation's worst particle air pollution.
A cure for the dust plague appears near. But folks here in the Owens Valley--home to California's most epic water war--worry that the medicine could be as nasty as the malady.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the agency that bled dry Owens Lake and created the horrific dust storms when it began exporting water to Southern California in 1913, is about to embark on a massive, $62-million effort to fix the damage it wrought.
In the coming weeks, construction is to begin on a 5-foot-wide pipeline to divert Los Angeles Aqueduct water to the lake bed, where more than 13 square miles will be turned into a mud flat to keep down the dust.
Keeler residents such as Rice are grateful that their dust woes may soon recede. But now they have a new slate of concerns, from mosquitoes to the disruption that will be caused by construction.
Mostly, though, they worry about the ground water.
In the past, water officials have proposed pumping briny, undrinkable water from beneath the lake for the project, sparing the precious drinking water from elsewhere in the valley that they'd prefer to export south.
But Keeler residents roared in dismay over the plan, which they fear would also dry up the town's only well. DWP officials agreed to tap the aqueduct while new studies are done.
In the meantime, the huge water agency is wrangling with Inyo County officials over a separate proposal they insist has nothing to do with the lake project: to boost by nearly 50% the pumping of fresh ground water elsewhere in the valley. The jump from 63,000 acre-feet a year to about 93,000 annually would mark the first significant increase in a decade.
That proposed boost revives fears among locals that pumping will wilt plants already weakened by generations of water exports to Los Angeles. DWP officials say not to worry, that a pumping increase is justified by research showing the valley's plant life has rebounded.
Doubters abound in the Owens Valley, a place of institutionalized distrust of the DWP rooted in the long-ago days when William Mulholland turned north for water to build a megalopolis. Some see this as yet another water grab by Los Angeles, a move meant to help offset the huge quantities that DWP expects to use on the lake.
"Just look at the record," said Rice, a Costa Rica native grown fond of California's isolated High Desert. "When they bought the water rights a century ago, they didn't tell people they were going to dry out Owens Valley."
As for Keeler, "if our well goes, we go," Rice said. "Keeler would disappear."
Worries extend up the valley. Some skeptics suggest that the effects of increased ground-water pumping will ripple far and wide, killing off native plants and trees.
"I'm worried about this whole valley becoming a dust bowl," said Benett Kessler, a radio station owner long at odds with the DWP. "L.A. is bullying their way around, taking what they want. In the meantime, our trees and plants continue to die."
A 35% loss in vegetation before the 1990s has been documented by the U.S. Geological Survey. The agency has advised a limit on ground-water pumping of 75,000 acre-feet annually from all sources throughout the valley.
Wesley Danskin, a Geological Survey research hydrologist who has studied Owens Valley, suspects the region is still recovering from the long drought that ended in the mid-1990s. A pumping hike will inevitably shrink the ground water available to plants.
"There's no free lunch," he said. "The whole valley is interconnected."
Feeling Like a Conquered People
Ever since Los Angeles began secretively buying up water rights in Owens Valley shortly after the turn of the century, many residents in this narrow and picturesque valley have felt like a conquered people.
Los Angeles, intent on keeping a firm grip on water use, owns most of the valley floor. Farmland in the valley, once an agricultural mecca, dwindled from 75,000 acres in the 1920s to 12,000 today. Nearly every land use decision is controlled by distant landlords in Los Angeles, from siting a cemetery to expanding business at Bishop Airport.
"The city of Los Angeles owns this place," said Greg James, Inyo County's water director. "There's little in the way of economic or public activity that doesn't have to go through the city of Los Angeles for approval."
Of late, historic battles that fueled the feud--the stealthy purchase of property, rivers bled dry, decades of court fights over environmental damage--have given way to an era of uneasy detente.