May 08, 2017

Photo Essay: The Lost Lake of the Owens Valley

There used to be a lake in the Owens Valley. But few people alive today have ever seen it. And no living person today saw the area before the valley was formed by the tectonic movements of plates—before the Sierras separated from the White and Inyo Mountain ranges.

That was all ages ago, but the closest experience you can get today is the Haiweee reservoir, created by the DWP to supply drinking water to LA. And, much to the chagrin of locals, it's closed to the public.

But Haiwee Reservoir is just a short and recent chapter in the saga of how LA stole water from the Owens Valley, draining its river and cutting off any inflow to Owens Lake.

When Owens Lake was still a "true lake" measuring 16 mi long and 10 mi wide (~100 square miles)—before LA came along to suck it dry—it had no outflow, so its volume fluctuated, depending on the rate of how much was coming in from the Owens River versus how much was evaporating.

You can still see its ancient shores at the Swansea Embayment, where tidal movements left their traces in sedimentary deposits... (held together by minerals, including trona)...

...and seashells.

Although technically freshwater, Owens Lake was pretty salty. At 17 feet deep, it consisted of 7% dissolved solids (sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, sodium sulfate), making its water more of a "brine" than anything else.

And before LA came along, industrialists and entrepreneurs tried to capitalize on its salt deposits, creating innovative ways to evaporate the water out and isolate the salt solids so they could be used to industrial purposes. The lake's "virtually inexhaustible reserve of sodium carbonate from which soda ash could be obtained" became big business.

Soda ash production started 1887, and thanks to the Carson & Colorado RR that transported it out of this isolated area, almost all soda ash in the U.S. came from Owens Lake until 1920...

...when the majority of the nation's supply shifted to Searles Lake.

In 1913, the LADWP came along with its grandiose plan to divert the Owens River into its aqueduct—and, as a result, the lake began to dry and its salts began to crystallize.

The local plants had to figure out how to adjust their processes to the changing constitution of the brine, since the Owens Lake water had become too concentrated to recover its mineral deposits by their previously successful methods of solar evaporation.

They could no longer ferry their material back and forth between the eastern and western shores of the lake by boat, between Swansea and Cartago.

With the receding shoreline, the docks ended up on dry land.

By 1924, the lake was no longer navigable...

...and had officially transformed into a dry lake.

But it's a funny thing—because the accepted and repeated narrative is that LA stole the Owens Valley destiny as a verdant agricultural community, rendering it barren.

But without that water, the Owens Valley dodged the widespread development that you'll find now in areas like California's Central Valley.

Which means that there's still lots of open space and the feeling of living off the grid when you're in Lone Pine, Olancha, or thereabouts.

And these days, that's a precious thing.

While the salt compounds continue to be mined out of the lakebed (by companies like U.S. Borax a.k.a. Rio Tinto, which owns 339 acres of the lake that's governed by the state)...

...the last thing they want is more water in the lake.

It's a valid concern after such a wet winter, with so much snowpack on the mountains above, ready to melt.

In the floods of 1937-8, the LADWP diverted water from its aqueduct into the lake, putting mining companies out of business.

And they did it again in response to the heavy snowpack of 1967-8, when they deliberately breached the aqueduct to allow the snow melt to flow into lake, putting more companies out of business.

You can see the results in the ghost towns along the lake's western shore—including Bartlett, Cartago, and Olancha—and its eastern shore, including Dolomite, Swansea, and Keeler.

So, fast-forward to the present day—when a major initiative by the LADWP is currently to mitigate the amount of dust that's been blowing up off the surface from the dry lake.

Dust storms have already made Keeler pretty much inhospitable.

The air quality of all the communities surrounding the lake has severely deteriorated.

And so, to try to fix the mess it made, the LADWP—a major employer of the Owens Valley area—has spent quite a bit of time, money, and resources to irrigate the dry lakebed...

...creating areas of shallow flooding...

...making the dry, cracked surface just wet enough not to blow away...

...and, in turn, attracting enough birds to once again make this an important stopover along the Pacific Flyway.

Unfortunately, even the natural sulfur springs aren't enough to completely restore the habitat of the brine shrimp, brine flies, and other invertebrates that many of those ravenous avian migrants need to snack on. (And, of course, there are still no fish to be found.)

But once again, we find ourselves in a situation where Owens Lake is more valuable dry than it is full of water. All of the infrastructure that the LADWP has installed onto the lake was designed for dry conditions—and, were this year's abundant snow pack to melt quickly and run off into the lake all at once, would be flooded and perhaps rendered inoperable (or, at least, damaged).

And that's a big investment of the LADWP that's riding on what happens when conditions create a more abundant natural water supply—just like in the late 1930s, and just like in the late 1960s.

Will the LADWP once again divert the water away from its aqueducts—now having two of them running through the area—and into the basin, to the potential dismay of local industry? If the past is any indication, then that's very likely.

But now the LADWP has a vested interest in what's happening at the lake's surface, creating quite a conundrum.

Of course, this is all an oversimplified rendition of a very complicated narrative that involves a lot of mendacity and subterfuge (for example, LA Water officials falsely posing as ranchers in the market to buy land, when all they wanted was the water rights). For a more detailed timeline, click here.

But having visited the area, it's clear that the story isn't nearly as cut-and-dry as how it's been depicted, either. Because the water was never really the valuable element of Owens Lake—it was always the mineral composition of it.

In fact, the water was more of a vehicle for those minerals—or an impediment to getting to them— than anything else.

But mining companies had figured out how to get rid of the water and were successful at it for a time—having perfected a process that required a particular composition of the brine, a balance that was thrown out of whack when there was both too much fresh water and too little of it.

If LA were to stop pumping groundwater from the Owens Valley—and draining its river—tomorrow, how long would it take for the lake to return to its "natural" state, circa 1900?

Would it ever?

Or has man messed everything up too much for too long now for the mistakes to ever be fixed?

Once we meddle in nature, are we forever doomed to be running to stand still?

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Ghost Railway of Eastern California
Celebrating the LA Aqueduct Centennial at The Cascades
Photo Essay: Searles Valley Minerals Plant Tour, Trona
Photo Essay: Visiting the Largest Borax Mine in the World
Another Lost Civilization

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