Ted Schade, the control district's air pollution control officer, said by filing the lawsuit, the city was trying to back out of agreements solidified in 1997 and 2006. He disputed claims that the utility was not responsible for the dust and said the city was breaking its promises to Owens Valley.
The utility was testing the limits of its obligations in court, he said, because it hadn't realized the true expense it was facing.
“They had hoped that they would be done spending money and putting water in Owens Lake,” Schade said in a phone interview. “We realize that and we realize that the city has limited monetary and water resources and we're willing to work with them — but they just can't say, We're not willing to do more.“'
Water experts and environmentalists said the lawsuit was symptomatic of a much bigger issue: An ongoing shortage of cheap water in the state and decades-long tensions between rural areas and urban areas over water rights.
“It's sort of been a landlord-tenant relationship,” said Steven Erie, director of the urban studies and planning program at the University of California, San Diego. “This is the latest chapter in long-standing and tension-filled history between the two … and it has affected the discussion and the framing of every agricultural-to-urban transfer in California from then on.”
The agency argues that expanding dust control means the utility will lean even more on other water sources, which could impact supply in other parts of the state and increase air pollution from pumping operations.
Peter Gleick, president of the nonpartisan Pacific Institute in Oakland, said the Los Angeles utility could address the Owens Lake demands by further conservation.
“It's no longer a question of expanding supply, it's also now a question of reducing inefficient use and reducing inappropriate demand,” he said. “Los Angeles has been very good about reducing demand … but there's a lot more that they could do.”