APNewsBreak: LA sues over Owens Lake dust control

Associated Press Modified: October 12, 2012 at 7:30 pm •  Published: October 12, 2012
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The powerful Los Angeles Department of Water and Power sued air regulators Friday over demands to control dust from Owens Lake nearly a century after the exploding metropolis siphoned water to quench its growing thirst.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Fresno, marks the latest salvo in a bitter back-and-forth over water rights in the arid region that was set in motion in 1913, when Los Angeles began diverting water from the lake 200 miles to its north. The lake went dry in 1926 and has since been plagued with massive dust storms and poor air quality.

The scandal created by the diversion project was fodder for the 1974 film "Chinatown," and hard feelings persist in rural Owens Valley, where many locals see the utility as a parasitic neighbor. The aqueduct was dynamited repeatedly after increased pumping in the 1920s combined with a drought to ruin many local farms.

Since a 1998 agreement, Los Angeles has spent $1.2 billion to tamp down the dust there as part of the nation's largest dust mitigation project, mainly by putting water back into a 40-square-mile area of the lakebed. The utility is currently working to control dust in another 2-square-mile parcel.

But recent orders from the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District to increase the dust mitigation area by 3 square miles are excessive and wasteful, the lawsuit alleges. The utility does not believe dust from the area in question was caused by its century-old actions and says it is not responsible.

The utility will honor its commitment and maintain the work it's already done, but it wants a permanent agreement about where its responsibilities end, officials said.

The lawsuit, which also names the California Air Resources Board, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, asks the court for relief from the "systematic and unlawful issuance to the city of dust control orders and fee assessments."

The additional dust control project would cost the Department of Water and Power up to $400 million, and ratepayers already pay $90 a year for dust mitigation at Owens Lake, said Ron Nichols, the department's general manager. The city uses 30 billion gallons annually — enough to fill the Rose Bowl each day to overflowing for one year — to keep dust down, he said.

"We're pouring that onto the lake, and the issue is, it's just a colossal waste of water," Nichols said. "Our fundamental problem is that we are being singled out because of our customers and Los Angeles being considered as having deep pockets. They think we're the only ones who can pay for dust that we believe is occurring naturally."

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