Imagine standing on the edge of a lake, blue water stretching on for miles to the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, being fed by the snow melt high above. Trees litter the shores, and maybe a whirling mass of migratory birds cloud out the sun above. This is what European settlers thought was Paradise in the Californian desert, and where the indigenous Paiute people of Payahǖǖnadǖ (“place of flowing water”) lived for millennia.
This sight is what you would have seen just over one hundred years ago at Owens Lake. Now, only a desolate alien landscape filled with bitter salt and harsh dust remains. Four generations ago, the city of Los Angeles seized the land containing Owens Lake and the surrounding areas, and built an aqueduct to siphon out the water from the lake. Within a decade, Owens Lake was dry. The surrounding farms, ranches, and towns disappeared.
The destruction of Owens Lake has a greater impact on Owens Valley than just a lack of water. Soon, residents started encountering immense clouds of toxic dust blown up from the dry lake bed by winds rushing through the valley. The dust is thick, making the air look like the smoke produced by the 2020 wildfires, and is the largest source of dust pollution in the United States.
Under the outcries of nearby Lone Pine and Bishop to act on the dust and return their water, LA did not budge. It was their land, and their water to take. They even built a second aqueduct and began siphoning off groundwater. Only under court order in 1997 for violation of the Clean Air Act, was LA’s Department of Water and Power forced to start a dust mitigation project. The project started in the early 2000’s; it is still ongoing, and the dust regularly pollutes and clouds the sky today.
Even the project itself generates its own problems. The gravel placed over the dust threatens to destroy ancient protected archaeological sites. Saline water for surface coverage is planned to be pumped deep underground, polluting still pristine aquifers.
However, there is still room for hope. The small shallow pools of water created by sprinklers under the dust mitigation project has allowed a new marshland to grow, and migratory birds have restarted their old pathways.
But if such a small amount of water can make an impact, why isn’t more being returned? The answer is antiquated western water laws. If LA stops pumping all the water from Owens Lake, the water ceases to be theirs. Thus, water taken from the lake, pumped hundreds of miles to LA, is simply dumped in the ocean for no one to use. Water that could restore the habitats of the lake, water that could be used by the descendants of the tribes which lived here for millennia.
In drought-stricken California, and much of the world, water is everything. We go to tremendous lengths to procure water, shaping our lives around it, yet we still waste it. Ecosystems, cultures, lives are destroyed for water. And it is only going to get worse, through growing utilization of resources and climate change. The solutions for our water problems exist, but we need to change our policies, our consumption, our mindsets to implement them. To protect our water, and to protect ourselves.