LOS ANGELES (AP) – The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power sued in federal court Friday over demands that it start additional dust control efforts in Owens Lake, a remote body of water that went dry nearly 90 years ago after the exploding metropolis siphoned off the 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.
Since a 1998 agreement, the city has spent $1.2 billion to tamp down the dust there as part of the nation’s largest dust mitigation project, mainly by diverting water to put 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, the joint agency that oversees the project, 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 area is located above the lake level as it was marked in 1913 and therefore was already dried up before Los Angeles began taking water, according to the lawsuit.
Ted Schade, the control district’s air pollution control officer, was in a meeting and did not immediately return a call or email seeking comment. In the past, he has said the exposed lake bed in its entirety is the utility’s responsibility because the utility created the problem.
The project would cost the Department of Water and Power up to an additional $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.
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 asks the court for relief from the joint agency’s “systematic and unlawful issuance to the city of dust control orders and fee assessments.”
“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.”