A California Lake Becomes a Stopover Spot Again
Two hundred miles north of Los Angeles, windswept Owens Lake was the victim of one of the most audacious water grabs in the history of the American West. Now it is the site of one of its most innovative restorations--resurrecting a critical pit stop for migrating birds.
The dust blustered into the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, 75 miles to the south, disrupting tests being conducted there. U.S. Forest Service officials complained that it irritated visitors and employees alike. The most adverse consequences by far were to the 40,000 residents of Owens Valley, predomi- nantly members of the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. Many of the students at the Lone Pine Elementary School were using in- halers, and often the dust was so thick the entire student body was kept inside at recess. Visits by asthmatic patients to local emergency rooms surged.
The Great Basin district documented the air pollution for more than a decade, and then held Los Angeles responsible for controlling it. Court orders backed the air district. City of- ficials guarded their precious resource like liquid gold; diverting flow from their aqueduct was like putting a hand in the city till. But they already owned the water and releasing some of it onto the lakebed--a matter of turning a few valves--was the easiest way to control dust. After years of rancorous negotiations and consistent rulings in favor of the air district, the Department of Water and Power finally committed to controlling dust on 22 square miles of the sandiest, grimiest part of the lakebed. Fol- lowing a 1997 agreement, the department began spraying water and planting vegetation as well as spreading gravel across an area now expanded to 45 square miles. The moisture was magical: A population of single-celled algae exploded in the saline water, providing food for alkali fly larvae and adults, which, in turn, the shorebirds and waterfowl scarfed up. It was a start, says Prather.
The 1997 agreement did not end the hostilities. Even as the habitat burgeoned, the air dis- trict continued to measure the dust. "We just kept poking around the lakebed and finding more pollution," says Schade. As the area of mandated dust control crept up, the city filed lawsuits. The courts rejected them, and the air district im- posed additional dust control standards. The 1997 agreement left the city responsible for deciding how to control the dust, but whatever method it proposed met with opposition from someone. Conservationists objected to anything that reduced the habitat; water and power officials opposed anything that required reducing the flow in the aqueduct. "The process was just plain ugly," says Pete Pumphrey, a retired attorney and president of Eastern Sierra Audubon, who has been involved in the negotiations since moving to Bishop in 2004.
The eventual breakthrough may have stemmed from a change in leadership at the Department of Water and Power. Or, perhaps, from the air district's threat of a $10,000-a-day fine for not meeting the dust control mandates. Or it could have been sheer battle fatigue.
In 2008, after years of protracted negotiations, Jones and Audubon California issued an invitation to anyone with a stake in Owens Lake: conservation groups, such as the Native Plant Society and the Sierra Club; state and federal agencies; county and Los Angeles officials. Everyone accepted. For the next three years a U.S. Forest Service office on the Bishop Paiute reserva- tion was used to facilitate an open dialogue focused on identifying common habitat goals and solutions that address the entire lake. It soon became clear that they could protect significant amounts of habitat as well as save significant amounts of aqueduct water. "We realized that what is good for Los Angeles operationally can also be good for the habitat," Jones says. In 2010 the city offered to fund a facilitated master-plan process based on shared goals.
The newfound partners developed an index of suitable habitats for the entire lake based on scientific data each had gathered on such factors as water depth and species use. Mul- tiplying each area's richness by the number of acres it occupies can determine where to create shallow ponds and marshlands with the least amount of water. The soils are richer at the lake's north end, for example, so it makes more sense to put water there to grow cattails for Virginia rails than to flood the poorer soils farther south, says Bill Van Wagoner, manager of the city's Owens Lake dust mitigation program. What the partners were designing was an enormous, on-the-ground experiment. "No one has ever tried to do anything on this scale," he says.
So far actual on-the-ground restoration has been spotty, determined by the demands of dust control, not birds. It has created a 100-square-mile mosaic crisscrossed by hundreds of miles of levees. About 36 square miles are flooded areas that include shallow pools for avocets, open water for pelicans, and wetlands for marsh wrens and red-winged blackbirds. Los Angeles planted about four square miles of saltgrass near the south end of the lake. At $12 million per square mile, it was an early, expensive effort to control dust. Today the habitat also includes roughly 30 square miles of natural brine pools. What's left remains a wind-rumpled playa where dust contin- ues to blow in dirty-white clouds.
Along the fringe of the lake, where Prather is currently driving, the graveled levee abruptly crosses to a shallow flood- ed area devoid of vegetation but packed with nutrients. Hun- dreds of western sandpipers, startled at the approaching vehi- cle, rise in unison to wheel over the water in alternate flashes of white bellies and brown backs. "That's one of the prettiest spectacles of nature," says Prather, grinning with pure boyish awe. Since dust control began, Owens Lake has become a reliable refueling place on the sandpipers' annual 6,000-mile migration from Panama Bay to Alaska, where they breed and nest before heading south for the winter.