TO DUST | History
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The Owens Valley region of California sits at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada Range, home to the highest peaks in the lower contiguous 48 states. Mt. Whitney, the tallest of those peaks, reaches into the sky to an elevation of just under 15,000 feet, while the floor of the Owens Valley at the town of Lone Pine, just thirteen miles due east as the crow flies, is at 3,700 feet. The Sierra create an extremely effective rain shadow, and the water that collects in the mountains eventually flows downward into the valleys on either side. Historically in the Owens Valley, this water would find its way into the Owens River, and then flow south to end its journey at Owens Lake.


Near the end of the 19th century, long after native Paiute tribes had already developed their own management of local water systems, and after ranchers and small farms had entered the picture after the Paiute, Owens Lake was around 110 square miles in size. It was one of the largest natural lakes in California, and covered a piece of landscape that, if located in Los Angeles, would stretch from Santa Monica to Glendale, and north into the city of San Fernando. But this immense lake of salty water would soon begin a drastic change, and the fundamental nature of the landscape would completely change by the end of the 1920’s.


In 1913, the City of Los Angeles completed the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a channel that would take the water of the Eastern Sierra and Owens Valley and divert it over 200 miles to the south to slake the thirst of the budding metropolis that was Los Angeles. With this diversion in place, the majority of the natural flow of water into Owens Lake was halted, and the lake shrunk to just forty square miles and only a few feet deep. As the lake disappeared, the salinity levels rose, creating a hyper-saline brine pool. Very small ponds of collected water that sit along the western edge of the historical lake shore are the very last existing remainders of the lake. These pools are still extremely saline, which supports the growth of a bacteria that colors the water a deep red; much of the water that is left today resembles the color of blood.

With the water gone, the exposed bed of Owens Lake was at the mercy of Owens Valley winds, which can become impressively forceful due to the topography of the long, narrow valley. Wind has always been present in the Owens Valley because of this geographical fact; the accounts of early explorers make understandable note of the weather from time to time. But the water of historical Owens Lake kept the saline, mineral-rich soils of the lower Owens Valley safe from these winds, and in fact the water contributed to its own set of weather patterns that directly impacted the surrounding area in a unique way. Stories passed down from old-timers in the now-abandoned town of Cerro Gordo (a rich sliver mining community during the last quarter of the 19th century located high in the Inyo Mountains to the east of Owens Lake) tell of somewhat regular rains in their town as evaporated water from the lake would collect at the top of the Inyos and fall in bursts of precipitation. Apparently it was a reliable enough pattern than many had large and healthy gardens of vegetables.


With Owens Lake gone, the dust storms grew more and more severe throughout the 20th century. As Los Angeles continued to collect Owens Valley water by way of the LA Aqueduct (and later a second pipe used to collect more water further north, as well as a growing number of groundwater wells), the dried expanse of land at the southern end of the valley became a growing health concern for all of the communities near it.


Photo by Brian Russell

Photo by Brian Russell

Into the beginning of the 21st century, before significant mitigation efforts had begun to limit the amount of dust pollution, Owens Lake was the single largest source of particulate air pollution in the entire country. Still today, when dust storms are severe, they measurably exceed the federal and state standards for air quality safety. With a series of legal agreements at the end of the 20th century, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (who controls the LA Aqueduct) was required to begin work that would mitigate this pollution. Though the details of these original agreements, as well as ongoing ones related to further court orders and requirements, are very complicated, the overall goal is straight-forward: The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, having originally diverted all of the water out of Owens Lake, is required to bring the pollution levels caused by its actions within the acceptable limits set by the state of California. Once this goal has been met, LADWP will have met its set of requirements according to the agreement.


Why is the pollution at Owens Lake so bad? This has to do with the type of particulate matter that is blown off of the dry lake during dust storms. The type of pollution from Owens Lake is named PM-10, witch takes its name from the size of the particles within the polluting material. Any airborne particles with a diameter of ten micrometers or less (0.0004 inches, or one-seventh the width of a human hair) all fall into the category of PM-10. Because of their extremely small size, PM-10 particles can lead to major heath issues in humans – ill effects to the respiratory system, cancer, and premature death can be caused by long-term exposure, and children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing lung issues are especially at risk.


The federal government has set standards for PM-10 pollution levels in an effort to address these potential public health concerns. Over a 24-hour period, PM-10 pollution should not exceed 150 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3). As long as measurements fall below this number, pollution levels are considered safe for the public at large. in the state of California, the PM-10 standard is much lower, at 50 μg/m3.


Federal PM-10 Standard:


California State PM-10 Standard:

Within the last ten years, measurements have been taken at Owens Lake where the level of PM-10 pollution is up to 12,000 μg/m3. In the community of Keeler, measurements have reached 3,900 μg/m3. The Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, a regional government agency that works to protect people and the environment in the Eastern Sierra, estimated that between 2000 and 2005, when dust storms were at their worst, Owens Lake could emit over 7,000 tons of PM-10 material in one day.


PM-10 Measurement taken in Keeler, CA


Highest PM-10 measurement taken at Owens Lake

Thankfully, the mitigation efforts completed so far on the Lake (as it’s called by locals) have worked to significantly limit the amount of pollution days that reach the types of number seen in the first decade of the 21st century. The measurements do, however, still exceed the state and federal requirements, so work continues on Owens Lake in an effort to bring the pollution under control.


Working with the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, the LADWP devised three main ways to tackle the mitigation efforts on Owens Lake. After research studies were completed, it was determined that shallow flooding, managed vegetation, and gravel were effective ways to limit the amount of particulate matter brought into the air by dust storms.


Managed vegetation

3 square miles


Shallow flooding

36.5 square miles



2 square miles

Along with these three main mitigation efforts, sand fencing and hay bales have been placed throughout the Keeler Dunes, just north of the town of Keeler on the eastern edge of Owens Lake. When driving between Lone Pine and Death Valley National Park on Highway 136, which passes through Keeler, one can often witness large amounts of sand being blown across the roadway; the dunes themselves are plainly visible from the road on either side.


As work continues on Owens Lake, dust storms are slowly becoming somewhat less severe, which is a major improvement for the health and well-being of those that live in the surrounding communities. Of course, as evidenced by the numerous legal battles pertaining to LADWP’s mitigation work, the process has not necessarily been a smooth one. LADWP rate payers (which include those that live in the Owens Valley), have taken on the burden of the cost of this work in the form of higher rates, as over one billion dollars have so far been spent to address the pollution. Many people who live in the greater Los Angeles area that receive water from the Owens Valley have no way of knowing the history of Owens Lake, or even the larger picture of resource management and allocation. Driving by Owens Lake on Highway 395, an uninformed traveller could easily be forgiven for thinking the dry lake is no different from any other countless dry lakes in the American West that have lost their water by way of natural causes. These are the reasons awareness is so important in the story of Owens Lake; by understanding the history of how it came to be, that knowledge can be applied in the future as communities continue to try and meet the challenges of water usage in a dry environment.


Owens Lake serves a stark reminder of how severely human activity can affect the landscape and cause extremely long-lasting consequences. As of the beginning of 2016, there are talks of a privately held company building wells and pipelines to drain the water table of the central Mojave Desert region east of Los Angeles in an effort to address increased need for water as the California drought marches on. It can be easy for some to view the desert landscape as devoid of any need for its water, and that it makes more sense to move it to where large populations exist. Owens Lake shows us the potential effects of this type of natural resource reallocation. Moving forward, it would serve our natural landscapes and our communities well to instead focus the topic of conversation away from water grabs and diversions of resources – a model that reigned throughout the 20th century in California at the expense of the Owens Valley, the Colorado River, and others – and towards conservation. This is a difficult idea for many reasons, but an important one. The 100 square miles of empty Owens Lake are a reminder to all of us that it’s a conversation worth having.



Primary sources:

Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District: 2013 Owens Lake Dust Control Update, prepared by Ted Schade

The California EPA Air Resource Board

The Eastern California Museum