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U.S. EPA APPROVES HISTORIC OWENS LAKE DUST CONTROL PLAN

Release Date: 8/18/1999
Contact Information: Leo Kay, U.S EPA, (415) 744-2201

     LAKEBED WORK TO CLEAN UP WORST PARTICULATE AIR POLLUTION IN U.S.
     
     SAN FRANCISCO -- In a ceremony on the dry lakebed of Owens Lake at the base of the High Sierra, U.S. EPA Regional Administrator Felicia Marcus gave final approval to an historic clean air plan for Owens Valley, which has been plagued for over half a century by dust storms that create the nation's worst particulate air pollution.  Under the plan approved by EPA, the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, the city of Los Angeles, the L.A. Department of Water and Power, and the state Air Resources Board, portions of the dry lakebed will be covered with water, gravel, and vegetation to prevent dust storms rising from the lakebed, which are the main source of the pollution.

     "The dust stops here," said Felicia Marcus, Regional Administrator for EPA's western region. "Today we celebrate a turning point in an historic, collaborative effort to remedy one of the nation's worst pollution problems.  To reach this milestone, all parties left behind decades of acrimony to successfully negotiate a solution, and today marks the commencement of the final, most important phase of this effort: on-the-ground action that will protect the health of Owens Valley area residents."

     Though the area severely affected by Owens Lake dust storms is sparsely populated compared to California's urban areas, it is home to about 40,000 people, including military personnel and their families at the China Lake Naval Air Station, residents of the communities of Ridgecrest, Olancha, Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, and Keeler, and members of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone, Fort Independence, Big Pine, and Bishop Indian Tribes.  Ridgecrest, even though it is located 150 miles away from the dry lakebed, is nevertheless severely affected by the windborne pollution.

     Dust from the lakebed contains carcinogens such as nickel, cadmium, and arsenic, as well as  salt, iron, calcium, potassium, sulfur, aluminum, and magnesium.  The dust particles are so small that several thousand of them could fit on the period at the end of this sentence.   These airborne  particles can cause lung damage, increased respiratory disease and even premature death. Children, the elderly, and people suffering from heart and lung disease, such as asthma, are  especially at risk.  The extraordinarily high air pollution levels recorded in and around the dry lakebed during dust storms have at times been up to 25 times higher than national clean air standards.

     The plan for the first time applies dust control measures to the dry lakebed to reduce airborne particulate matter.  The control measures include shallow flooding, managed vegetation, and gravel cover on the lakebed.  Workers have just begun laying the infrastructure for these measures on the lakebed itself.  If properly maintained and monitored, these measures will prevent dust from being kicked up by winds in the affected areas.  

     THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING LAKE; THE ONCE AND FUTURE RIVER

   The Owens Lake area's magnificent mountains and high desert vistas attract many visitors, but few are aware that today's barren lake bed was, until the early 1900's, one of California's largest lakes, with a surface area nearly as large as Lake Tahoe.  Keeler, a mining town on the eastern edge of the lakebed, was named after Captain J. M. Keeler, who operated a steamboat on the lake in the 1870's.  The lake gradually dried up after the city of Los Angeles diverted the Owens River, the source of the lake's water, into the city's Owens Valley Aqueduct starting in 1913.  As the lake shrank, exposing many square miles of salt flats, dust storms grew.

     The City of Los Angeles still owns thousands of acres of Owens Valley land with water rights along the Owens River. The river is still diverted into the Aqueduct, 51 miles upstream from the point where it once emptied into Owens Lake.  These 51 miles of mostly-dry riverbed, in which the river has not normally flowed since 1913, are due to be re-watered and restored to ecological health beginning in 2001 under a separate agreement between the city of Los Angeles and Inyo County.  Under the agreement, Los Angeles will leave enough water in the river to keep it flowing year-round, which will create the conditions necessary for vegetation, fish, and wildlife to return.

     Fact sheets and the text of the final action can be found on the EPA Region 9 Web site at http://www.epa.gov/region09/air/owens .

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