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DWP sues air district over Owens Valley dust rules

The department accuses the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District and one of its officials of issuing unreasonable and unlawful orders.

October 27, 2012|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • Ted Schade is air pollution control officer in the 110-mile-long Owens Valley. He has forced the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to quell dust storms rising off the dry bed of Owens Lake, which L.A. drained to slake its thirst.
Ted Schade is air pollution control officer in the 110-mile-long Owens… (Don Kelsen, Los Angeles…)

As a boy, Ted Schade couldn't get enough of old westerns with heroes standing alone in defense of towns that wouldn't stand up for themselves.

Now a 55-year-old man, Schade believes he is experiencing his own version of "High Noon."

As air pollution control officer in the 110-mile-long Owens Valley, Schade has forced the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to quell dust storms rising off the dry bed of Owens Lake, which L.A. drained to slake its thirst. Now the powerful utility is going after Schade.

The DWP filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fresno earlier this month accusing the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District and Schade of issuing unreasonable and unlawful orders. The DWP argues that its ratepayers have already spent $1.2 billion for vegetation, gravel and flooding of Owens Lake that have reduced dust pollution by 90% — yet Schade wants more.

The lawsuit doesn't name Schade as a defendant, but it accuses him of bias and asks that he be barred from presiding over future decisions affecting the city. DWP General Manager Ron Nichols said in a statement that "our water consumers will no longer be victimized by an unaccountable regulator."

The Los Angeles City Council, with the support of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, is expected to vote on a resolution endorsing the lawsuit. The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the Central City Assn. of Los Angeles and the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. took out a full page ad in the Los Angeles Times applauding the lawsuit. The ad said that other parties who share responsibility for the dust conditions are being given a free ride by Schade because "L.A. consumers are right where he wants them, like 'a fish on a hook.' "

Schade uttered the "fish on a hook" comment about the DWP during a 2009 Great Basin board meeting. He said the quote was taken out of context.

The attacks have left Schade in a position he didn't expect — abandoned by many Owens Valley community leaders and environmental activists. In a place where L.A. owns most of the land and water and has a grip on the region's economic stability, few people were willing to comment about the man whose career is on the line.

"It seems like everyone has a reason for staying out of it," Schade said.

His wife, Lisa, executive officer of the I Care animal shelter in Bishop, compares her husband's plight to that of "High Noon" frontier marshal Gary Cooper, a man of high principles and few words who must face enemies alone. "When she brings that stuff up," Schade said, "I just say, 'yep.' "

Actually, not everyone is staying out of the fight. Great Basin board chairman and Mono County supervisor Larry Johnston described Schade as "our guy" and said "we support him." Mark Bagley, executive director of the Owens Valley Committee, said, "Ted has a reputation for being a straight shooter."

Also in Schade's corner is S. David Freeman, who was general manager of the DWP in 1997 when it struck the first of two agreements with Great Basin to combat the powder-fine dust.

"Ted is simply a bureaucrat enforcing the law," Freeman said. "Ever heard of a polluter who didn't claim a regulator was biased?"

The valley has been the focal point of a historic feud since city officials quietly bought up ranch land and accompanying water rights 99 years ago, then built an aqueduct that sent Owens Valley water cascading 200 miles south to Los Angeles.

Schade, a soft-spoken civil engineer with a lifelong interest in California water issues, has been monitoring air pollution at Owens Lake since he joined Great Basin in 1990. Today, the lake bed bristles with air pollution monitoring devices and video cameras that help him chronicle the dust storms that kick up each year starting in late October.

In his view, the DWP's diversions transformed Owens Lake into the largest source of powder-fine dust pollution in the United States. Particulate air emissions of 10 microns or less, which are regulated by state and federal laws, lodge deep in the lungs, causing respiratory injuries. Dust storms exceeded federal health standards on 42 days over the past year, he said.

"Owens Lake dust emissions were more than 100 times the standard and, in order to meet clean air requirements, dust must be reduced by 99 percent," he wrote this week in response to the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. "The dust levels are 10 times lower than they were 15 years ago, but they are still 10 times too high."

The lawsuit aims to reduce the DWP's responsibilities under the dust control agreements. The utility argues that the pacts contain flaws that set the stage for problems, including waste of vast amounts of DWP water to control dust. The DWP has spread 95,000 acre-feet of water annually on the lake bed — more water than is consumed each year by the city of San Francisco, the lawsuit said.

The utility also argues that its responsibility is limited because "much of this dust is naturally occurring," and says it has discovered that the lake was smaller in 1913 — when the aqueduct began taking water south — than the size both sides assumed and outlined in the agreements.

The DWP claims that it is responsible for dust arising only from the roughly 42 square miles of the lake bed exposed since 1913. The utility says the State Lands Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management should be responsible for the remaining 10 square miles of the area.

The lawsuit was triggered by Schade's recent order that the DWP eliminate dust on an additional 2.9 miles of lake bed, a job the utility says could cost DWP ratepayers as much as $400 million.

Schade said L.A. misses the point. "I'm just a cop and Los Angeles is violating air pollution laws in Owens Valley," he said. "If the laws get changed, I'll enforce those laws too."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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