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DWP sues to limit its spending on Owens Lake

The agency says the air pollution control district is unreasonable in requiring it to combat dust on additional land in the dry lake bed created in 1913 when its water was diverted to L.A.

October 13, 2012|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • The L.A. Department of Water and Power argues that the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District is unreasonable to order the agency to eliminate dust on 2.9 miles of remote, geologically challenging lake bed.
The L.A. Department of Water and Power argues that the Great Basin Unified… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power filed a lawsuit Friday that would limit its spending on measures to stop massive dust storms at Owens Lake.

The agency argues that the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District is unreasonable to order the DWP to eliminate dust on 2.9 miles of remote, geologically challenging lake bed.

The DWP has already spent $1.2 billion to fulfill a 1997 agreement with the air pollution district to combat the powder-fine dust from the dry Owens Lake bed. The agency has reduced particle air pollution by 90% by introducing vegetation, gravel and flooding into vast areas of the lake bed.

The 100-square-mile lake east of Sequoia National Park was transformed into dusty salt flats after 1913, when its supply of snowmelt and spring water was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Despite the DWP's efforts, dust storms continue to rise off the vast playa.

The requirement to bring the additional 2.9 miles of lake bed into compliance with federal health standards will cost an additional $400 million, the agency said in its lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court.

In a prepared statement, DWP General Manager Ron Nichols said the district's orders will, "unless they are halted, result in the continued waste of billions of gallons of scarce California water."

Nichols also accused the air pollution district control officer, Theodore D. Schade, of seeking to "force L.A. to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more to reduce dust that the city did not create — all the while requiring L.A. to fund 90% of his agency's operating costs, including staff salaries, pension system and paying his outside lawyers at a rate of $750 an hour."

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a prepared statement that he supported the lawsuit, which names as defendants the district and state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board.

"We have no intent to walk away from our fundamental obligations at Owens Lake," Villaraigosa said. "Unfortunately, just one agency stood in the way of progress by continuing to issue unreasonable orders on the people of Los Angeles."

Schade said Friday he had not reviewed the lawsuit. But he said, "I am the air cop, and I've been given a set of state and federal laws to enforce. If additional areas on Owens Lake need dust abatement procedures I am required to order them."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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