Owens Valley and Water Myths

Nothing like seeing the New York Times kind of trip over its shoelaces in trying to describe some western American story to make GG all grumpy. They wrote on the evolving arrangements between Owens Valley residents and the City of Los Angeles in regards to minimizing the dust problem in Owens Valley. OK fine.  But there are a bunch of silly choices in the article that should have sent it back to the drawing board.

Start with the obvious: there is a whole paragraph about Alpine County, how few people there are, how rural it is.  This is evidently relevant because the current head of the regional air quality district lives there.  But Alpine County is not in the Owens River drainage, nor indeed on the same side of the Sierra Nevada, nor is it affected by the dust storms that occasionally rise from Owens lakebed.  The author might as well have listed all the characteristics of Stanley, Idaho for all the relevance it has here. This seems like stereotypical easterner ignorance of geography. The actual towns affected have more people, actual stoplights, and chain restaurants.  Don’t try to make this a story it isn’t by misrepresentation.

Then there is the usual simplistic “theft” of the water from Owens Valley by Los Angeles.  Now make no mistake, many valley residents were furious that LA was buying up the valley in order to dry it up; the dynamiting of the aqueduct demonstrates that. But did LA steal the water? Well, no, they actually bought up all the water rights (and usually the land with it).  Some sellers were willing, some were not, some were victims of the way the irrigation districts were set up.  LA used techniques that were morally and, perhaps, legally questionable. But if you like to apply theft, GG suggests looking at how San Francisco got its hands on the Tuolumne River; to avoid dealing with prior water rights, they chose to get the federal government to relinquish rights within a National Park.  In essence, they got something for nothing, which sounds a lot more like theft.

Finally there is the implicit story, one many buy into with little thought. Without big, bad LA, there would be Owens Lake, shimmering in the sunlight, reflecting the glory of the Sierra Nevada across its wonderful waters. You have to be oblivious to the fate of other western lakes to buy this.  The largest freshwater lake in the west, Tulare Lake, filled much of the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley in the mid-19th century.  Try and find it on a map today: agriculture drained it long ago.  Sevier Lake in Utah has similarly been dried out from time to time as the Sevier River’s waters are spread into agricultural areas arguably less fertile than what was in Owens Valley. Walker Lake in Nevada is on the verge of total crisis as its levels have dropped to the point where it might become an ecological dead zone (and it generates dust similar to what Owens Lake bed generates). None of these lakes were drained by distant metropolises.  They were drained by agriculture along the feeder rivers. Owens Lake, a smaller body than these, was almost certain to suffer the same fate.  And then where would things stand? At least then the folks who had drained the lake would be the ones suffering the dust from its exposed lakebed, but other than that we would have a lot more people in Owens Valley, a lot more pollution of other kinds.

The loss of these western lakes is ecological devastation writ large, but it would be great if we recognized the full extent of the problems and their origins. LA is indeed responsible for the unhealthy air in Owens Valley when the wind comes up, and it is great that persistence by locals has allowed for at least some mitigation of this. But we’d be better served by a better understanding of how we got here.

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