Once Upon A Time...
Only traces of water exist today in once-wet Owens Dry Lake, 233 miles north of Los Angeles. But its sad fate happened in the blink of an eye, geologically speaking. This now-parched lakebed baking in the semiarid sun, intentionally created by the City of Los Angeles, may soon hold water once again. Lots of water.
Before the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power drained it dry beginning in 1913, Owens Lake was a 100-square mile remnant of the Ice Age, up to 50 feet deep. Two steamships, fueled by the discovery of massive silver deposits in the nearby Inyo Mountains, once plied Owens Lake's waters, hauling bullion and supplies between Cartego at the lake's southern tip and the ports of Keeler (map pin J) and Swansea (K) on the lake's eastern shore.
There It Is. Take It.
Then came the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Pioneers had been tapping the Owens River watershed for decades, and yes, lake levels were dropping — as the DWP likes to point out. But massive Owens Lake was doomed once Los Angeles began diverting hundreds of billions of gallons from its source to a thirsty L.A., desperate to feed its phenomenal growth. Between 1900 and 1910, L.A.'s population soared from 102,000 to 319,000, a 212% increase in a single decade.
L.A. turned to a self-taught engineer — Irish immigrant William Mulholland, whose fantastic visions of cutting-edge water projects were fueled by Los Angeles' powerful mayor Fred Eaton. But it was Mulholland who uttered an apocryphal ad lib as the rerouted Owens River roared into the San Fernando Valley — five words that still resonate, and still infuriate residents of Inyo County. . .
"There it is. Take it."
Before she died in 2011, Mulholland's granddaughter Catherine handed me a glass of cold water drawn from the tap of her Los Angeles kitchen sink. "That's good Owens River water you're drinking, my friend," she said with a laugh before revealing the inside story of the most despised soundbite in the long, troubled history of Owens Valley.
Mulholland's $23-million dollar, gravity-fed aqueduct was undeniably an engineering marvel, frequently compared during its four-year construction to the building of the Panama Canal. Mulholland's instinctive genius, coupled with his construction crews' muscle and mules, successfully decapitated Owens Lake from its Owens River headwaters at a point some 60 miles upstream.
The Owens River had spilled into Owens Lake for millennia. That was then, in Mulholland's estimation.
...and The Scam
The Aqueduct sent up to 260 million gallons a day of what the DWP still describes as California's purest water — virgin Sierra snowmelt — to L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, creating a scheme ripe for plunder by Aqueduct insiders. Tipped off that Mulholland was planning to bring a river to Los Angeles, water would change everything, they cashed in on worthless land about to be supplied with unimaginable amounts of liquid gold, then proudly built cities which they named after themselves — a tale retold by Roman Polanski in "Chinatown."
Mulholland figured there'd be plenty of water for Los Angeles and the Owens Valley to share, according to Catherine. But the water grab stifled much of Inyo County's agriculture and ranching. Experiments in utopian agricultural communities ground to a halt. Water-intensive citrus, almond and walnut groves never happened.
To protect the precious water that would keep L.A. alive, the DWP secretly snatched up as much land, and as many water rights as it could with the blessing of the Federal Government which declared that whatever the DWP could not buy would become national forestland. Only 1.7% of the Valley floor remained in private ownership, effectively freezing growth, housing, jobs and the population of the Owens Valley to this day.
Only 18,500 people live in Inyo, California's second-largest county. It can economically sustain no more since new homesites are nonexistent. Here are 10,230 square miles of largely untouched California, populated by fewer souls than the citizenry of Hermosa Beach.
Unintended Consequences: Owens Dry Lake Turns Toxic
Once home to dense flocks of ducks, geese and other waterfowl migrating along the Pacific Flyway, Owens Lake turned from a source of life into something downright dangerous: a dried-out pancake of dust, dirt and sand laced with some of nature's most deadly, naturally-occurring earth substances.
America's Champion Dust Bowl
Draining Owens Lake within a few short years created an unstable, toxic terrain laced with heavy metal particles including arsenic, nickel, cadmium and selenium along with silica that embeds in the lungs and slashes them with every breath. "And then, you die," as one Keeler resident puts it. Immense, opaque clouds of the micro-fine powder blew as far east as the Grand Canyon and as far south as Mojave and Palmdale.
The Owens phenomenon did not occur in other dry lakes of the American West. They evaporated gradually over countless centuries, their metals and minerals slowly stabilizing on nature's timetable. Owens Dry Lake, a rush job by humans, became America's largest single source of dust. Toxic dust.
Dust events whipped up whenever the wind rose above 15 mph, creating a huge pool of respiratory illness patients who relied on multiple courses of antibiotics for relief. Some have been stricken with autoimmune disorders. Others developed cancers, though Inyo County's residents are considered statistically insignificant for proper research — their population being so scant. Toxic whiteouts frequently shut down the testing grounds of the U.S. Navy's nearby China Lake Naval Weapons Station at huge taxpayer expense.
Owens Dry Lake's First Victim: Keeler, California
The loss of Owens Lake water was the final nail in Keeler's coffin, a once-vibrant town born in the mania of California's biggest-ever silver mining bonanza — the Cerro Gordo Mines, perched some 4,900 feet above the town in the Inyo Mountains.
Keeler was dealt a body blow when the rich silver veins petered out. Then, the newly-dried lake inflicted mortal wounds: economic collapse and disease. One Keeler resident I met keeps an oxygen tank by his side, breathing into a mask strapped to his face as he drives through his realm in a pickup truck.
Lakeside living became an ever-receding memory. Until now. Perhaps.
Like Owens Lake, Keeler Dries Up
Keeler carried on for as long as it could, thanks to small factories producing soda products, talc and borax from the lakebed. A remarkable aerial tramway carried salt to Keeler from Saline Valley some 14 miles away for a while, but the smelters that once processed precious metal, lead and tin from Cerro Gordo closed down forever.
The mining stopped, salt prices fell, Owens Lake vanished. Keeler began circling the drain.
Some say Keeler is a now a ghost town, a claim that's fiercely rejected by its 66 residents. Still, once-thriving businesses are shuttered. The precious metal moguls and millionaires whose fortunes were made in Keeler are long gone. Per capita income in Keeler today stands at around $15,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Last Train to Keeler
Before Owens Lake disappeared, tourists rode a narrow-gauge railroad to Keeler where the Sierras, topped by Mt. Whitney — a 14,000-foot behemoth and the highest point anywhere between Canada and Mexico — looked down on the town. It was a spectacular scenic getaway, what one Inyo County Supervisor describes as "truly the wild side of California."
Visitors and tourists arriving on the twice-weekly evening train checked in at George Mates' Lake View Hotel, rebranded as the Hotel Keeler after the lake vanished from sight.
Game Changer: The Blizzards of 2016-17
Near-record rain and snowfall have fallen in the Sierras this season, setting the stage for an amazing event to unfold. "Something wonderful," as astronaut Dave Bowman predicted in the sequel to "Space Odyssey: 2001." it's not the birth of a new sun this time, but something equally unexpected — the return of water to Owens Lake.
Seriously? Water in Owens Lake?
The dense Sierra snowpack that's about to melt is estimated at twice the amount of water Los Angeles needs for an entire year, more than the Los Angeles Aqueduct may be able to handle. With California's reservoirs and lakes already brimming with drought-busting rain, Owens Lake may be just the place for all that added snowmelt to seek its own level.
Snowpack runoff can overwhelm and flood the Los Angeles Aqueduct, says Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti who has declared a state of emergency in the Owens Valley. Garcetti has also requested State and Federal assistance for the devastating consequences he expects. Everything depends on the speed of a snowmelt accellerated by global warming, and the ability of downstream plumbing and storage to keep up with the anticipated deluge.
Flooding threatens $1-Billion in Dust Mitigation Infrastructure
According to Garcetti, catastrophic flooding will imperil more than a billion dollars worth of dust mitigation efforts, financed by Department of Water and Power customers. No one yet knows how it will all play out, though the past holds a clue. Similar storms and snowmelt triggered The Great Flood of 1862 which inundated or wiped away towns, mills, dams, flumes, houses and animals, ruining fields from Sacramento to San Diego.
By this summer, melting snow from storms that show no sign of letting up could unpack yet another ironic twist in a century of Owens-Angeles animosity, court actions, environmental disasters, and seething resentment that has, from time to time, provoked dynamite attacks on the Aqueduct.
State of Emergency Declared
The vast, computerized infrastructure that sprinkles portions of the dry lakebed in an effort to keep its dust down, and its miles of pipelines, sensors and sprinklers, are all potentially vulnerable, says Garcetti, should a newly-refilled Owens Lake unearth this manmade subterranean water works.
Keeler's Most Astonishing Summer?
It's perfectly conceivable that given conditions now in play, Keeler could once again become a lakeside town, a fascinating lure for curiosity-seekers with a taste for irony and the absurd. Keeler could morph into a time-travel adventure for folks who'd never imagined that a mammoth lake once existed along Highway 395 a century ago, and for others who never expected to see water in Owens Dry Lake in their lifetime.
Clueless Angelenos may learn that much of their water comes this astonishingly beautiful county which has been looted, stunted and — until recently — badly abused by the City of Los Angeles.
"I've had people stand here, looking at an exhibit we have on the Water Wars, and you'll hear them comment, 'I didn't know our water came from up here,'" Beth Porter of the Eastern California Museum says, rolling her eyes. "I stand there going, 'Jeez! No, it comes out of the tap.'"
A Bittersweet Blessing for Keeler
Keeler Beach may once again find itself on the shores of a sparkling lake, its waters once again filled with flocks of northbound birds taking a break in the lake as they wing their way to Canada along Eastern Sierra airspace.
But Keeler residents know from experience that water will also create countless insect breeding pools, infesting their little town with a new threat: horseflies, blue flies, sandflies and biting midges — some potentially carrying disease vectors. The good news? Los Angeles' DWP is already under court order to provide door and window screens, insect repellent and bug zappers to Keeler residents since Inyo County's relatively tiny budget has proven incapable of dealing with extensive vector control.
And yes, this might be time to clean up Keeler Pool. The town's 66 residents may want to swim a few victory laps.
What would William Mulholland would think if he rose from the dead to see water gushing down the Owens River, feeding the lake he destroyed? Here's what his granddaughter Catherine told me. . .