I Visited the Lake Town That LA Turned into a Salt Flat
Feb 25 2014
About a month ago, I wrote a story on how Los Angeles is being affected by the apocalyptic California drought of 2013–2014 (from which we are getting a short respite in the form of a huge storm coming tomorrow). The ideas in it weren't completely novel: Water really doesn't occur naturally in Los Angeles. Our man-made aqueducts are our lifeline. All that water actually comes from somewhere, and that supply is far from unlimited.
I called Los Angeles "California's drain hole," but I didn't emphasize the place that got really, tangibly drained: California's Owens Valley, about 200 miles north.
It wasn't just an economic disaster for residents. The ensuing dust bowl was an ecological disaster with far-reaching consequences. Today, industry would love to march right into a similar ecological disaster. In order to do so, businesses keep harping on about stupid little expendable fish, but the fish are beside the point. More on that later.
You can go to the site of that 100-year-old ecological disaster and see it with your own eyes. I did. Off Highway 395 in Inyo County, just past the site of Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp, you take a quick turn at Goodale Road and head east. Open a gate by hand. Drive down a dirt road. Open another gate by hand. Finally you'll find yourself at the very spot where William Mulholland stood 101 years ago, redirected the flow of the Owens River to LA, and created a metropolis. Here it is:
In the years leading up to the creation of the aqueduct, there was a drought called the worst "in a quarter century." That drought didn't have much of an effect on Los Angeles, and it wasn't enough to launch William Mulholland's water-stealing project (see my earlier story for more about this), so in the early 1900s, yellow journalist Harrison Gray Otis of the Los Angeles Times invented the story of a much more severe fake drought. The short term solution (above) was to obtain water rights from the Owens Valley in order to slake the fake thirst of Los Angeles.
Next, I drove a few miles south to see what happened when the water disappeared. This once biologically diverse valley is home to a purely theoretical, 110-square-mile body of "water" called Owens Lake. In the 19th Century, it was navigable, with steam boats putting around its surface and sailing in from its source: the Owens River. The other day I walked from the lakeside community of Keeler, out into the middle of Owens Lake and looked down. It looked like this:
The bottom of the lake used to be a salty sediment, made of a mixture of minerals and microbes. When Los Angeles drank the water from the lake's source over the course of the 20th century, the lake drained completely, turning into a salt flat. The sediment at the bottom crystallized and morphed into a unique formation the locals call "Owens Lake Snow." Whole square miles of the lake are completely covered with it.
When a breeze hits, it breaks up and becomes a dust. For decades, the windy seasons created heavy fog, or even total whiteouts made of cadmium, chromium, chlorine, and iron. Does it give locals cancer? God yes, but in the short term, the airborne particles whip your face, causing bloody noses and lips. It's awful. When the dust blew into my face, I could taste it.
In the 1990s, Los Angeles was finally held formally responsible for the massive dust clouds that traveled all around the state and, according to a ranger I spoke to, as far away as the East Coast. They launched a massive, billion-dollar project to mitigate the dust, involving the cultivation of "managed vegetation" on the lakebed, mainly a grass that could handle the salt. In a masterstroke of irony, the biggest anti-dust effects come from the addition of thousands of sprinklers on the lakebed's surface, piping in water from—you guessed it—the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Did Los Angeles fix the mess we made of Owens Valley? No. Negotiations and lawsuits happen constantly: the legacy of our city's bizarre origin. After further negotiations in 2006, we agreed to put some of the water back in their river, and we, the residents of Los Angeles, paid for it. It was called the Lower Owens River Project. That didn't do much, either. Owens Lake remains the single biggest source of particulate air pollution in the United States.
Life became largely unlivable for the residents of the towns of Keeler and Swansea. Just about everyone left. What was once a panic over supplying water to the rapidly dehydrating people of a totally unnecessary city wound up ruining and ending the lives of people in another.
Today, farm lobbies are making a similar case, arguing that their sector deserves someone else's water. The TV news loves to have farmers stand in fallow fields, frowning and contemplating their families' futures. Mainstream journalism has changed exactly zero percent since the days of Harrison Gray Otis.
The reality about agriculture in the United States in 2014 is that it makes you insanely rich. Large-scale agriculture, particularly in California, where destructive flooding is almost nonexistent (hint, hint), do really well. American farmers, particularly the gigantic agricultural conglomerates like Cargill, rake in mindboggling profits, and dynastic farm families who own their own land regularly pull in seven- and eight-figure incomes.
But the press doesn't show Cargill representatives frowning at dry fields on TV. They show this guy:
What's happening is that a drought in California is a good time to try to divert water away from conservationism and toward agriculture. Farmers say that environmentalists are wrong to try to protect California's Central Valley to the extent that they do.
Last Friday, it emerged that farmers won't be getting their share of water this year from the Central Valley Project, the huge network of channels, aqueducts, and reservoirs feeding precious water from wet parts of California to the majority of the region, often hundreds of miles from an actual water source, in this case farms instead of a city.
Some of the Central Valley Project water is contractually obligated to go to the agricultural sector. But when it's not there, simply because rain didn't happen, then, well, it just doesn't get any, contract or none.
They blame a fish. It's called the delta smelt, an endangered fish that lives in the San Joaquin Delta, and for decades it's been a major feature of right-wing talking points about water, California's biggest political issue. Farmers and the legislators who love them have been whining ad nauseam about them for years, saying that "never before have the pumps been shut down for a fish" back in 2007, and as often as they possibly can ever since.
I'm sure it's very stupid. Look at it in that fisherman's hand (above). It's so small, and it's got those big, expressionless eyes. How could we prioritize this ugly little monster over humans who desperately crave cheap artichokes?
The smelt is—pardon the idiotic pun—a red herring.
When you want to protect an ecosystem (above) just because it's nice and you like it, you need an actual piece of law, like the Endangered Species Act for instance, to empower you to do so. When environmentalists hoping to protect the delta narrowed their focus to the smallest and dumbest of fish, they came upon one whose numbers had dwindled enough to merit federal protection. Jackpot.
Much of what could have gone to agriculture was diverted to delta preservation. That's good news for the smelt and six other stupid fish, ten stupid birds, five stupid amphibians and reptiles, nine stupid mammals, and fifty stupid plants, plus anyone who lives near the river and doesn't want it to become another dust bowl. Instead, certain farm fields became a much bemoaned "dust bowl." Never mind that that wasn't fertile land to begin with.
So when John Boehner spouts a talking point like "How you can favor fish over people is something people in my part of the world would never understand," it suggests some kind of simplistic fantasy situation. One in which there's a pool full of dumb fish on the left, and weeping farmers on the right, and a valve handle that lets you choose the direction water flows.
"But surely the delta ecosystem can't be completely destroyed, right?"
Yes, it can. Weren't you paying attention to the first part of this story? We built this state by destroying ecosystems. The California flag should be an extinct animal. That'd be hilarious. Oh, wait, that's exactly what it is.
When the House passed a symbolic, smelt-smiting bill in order to provoke the Senate, destroying the Sacramento Delta is pretty much exactly what they had in mind. It won't be as fast as the draining of Owens Lake, but since we're always making new mouths to feed, agriculture is a growing sector. The Delta will suffer a death by a thousand cuts over the next century, and it will have bipartisan support.
Supporters of the bill literally call the river's natural tendency to flow to the sea a "waste of water resources." I can think of no better way to illustrate the pointlessness of water conservation rhetoric than that. "Conserving water" is a platitude we can all get behind, right? But what about when we're keeping it from being "wasted," by continuing to let animals live in it, instead of turning it into stuff we can sell?
The drought Los Angeles caused in the Owens Valley made my city what it is today. Maybe another, similar disaster is what we need in order to keep the cost of avocados down. If that's what we're going to do, and we're going to use this natural drought as our excuse, let's at least be up-front about it. We love cheap guacamole way more than we love a stupid fish and its stupid ecosystem.
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