And then, the lake ran dry

Los Angeles is often referred to as being built on a desert. Whilst this is no more than one of many myths surrounding LA, one of the cities greatest vulnerabilities is its dependence on outside water sources. Importing 85% of its water, and spending $1 billion annually in the process, LA is repeatedly referred to as in ‘crisis’ during its frequent droughts. This perhaps explains why the LA Water and Power authority have gone to such extreme lengths to protects its access to the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

photo: California aqueduct
The Los Angeles Aqueduct

Perhaps deceptively named, the Los Angeles Aqueduct system comprises of both the Second Los Angeles Aqueduct, and the Owens Valley Aqueduct which lies over 200 miles north of the city. As part of a clandestine operation in the early 1900’s, Los Angeles agents posed as ranch owners and farmers and descended on Owens Valley. They worked together to identify who owned water rights in the region and set about discreetly purchasing land so water could be redirected toward the city (LA Times). Fast forward 100 years, the outcome for the Owens Valley has been catastrophic. LA imports 450 million gallons of water a day from the valley. The once 50 ft deep, 280km2 lake now runs dry. Today, it is the single largest source of dust pollutants in the United States. Storms can ‘kick up a toxic brew of arsenic and other carcinogens’ threatening 40,000 residents in the Owens Valley region with asthma, emphysema and an increased likelihood of heart attacks (High Country News).

DEAD SEAS: Infamous water heist -- and hubris -- reap poison whirlwind --  Monday, June 6, 2016 --
A dust storm kicking up over Owens Valley

Clearly, ‘there is no longer an outside or limit to the city,’ as its boundaries are smaller than its cultural and environmental footprint. Instead, ‘urban process harbour social and ecological processes that are embedded in dense and multi-layered networks of local, regional, national and global connections” (Swyngedouw, 2003: 899), and their effects will consequently be felt far beyond Los Angeles’ borders. The distribution of resources is often completely contingent on who has power and who doesn’t. In a capitalist society, the most valued, the most powerful regions are those that are the most lucrative. I would argue all environmental struggles find their roots in economic and social inequality. The city of Los Angeles, and all its economic and cultural might were, in this case, valued above the residents of Owen Valley. Water flowed along the Los Angeles Aqueduct and, for years, little was done to help the Owen Valley residents who were breathing air that breached federal environmental regulations.

Seeking Justice

It’s not all bad. In fact, Owens Valley is one of the few successful environmental recoveries in the United States today. Ted Schade, the director of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, spent years documenting airborne particulates. By 1997, they felt prepared enough sue LA for the damage caused. In the ‘David and Goliath’ battle, LA reportedly ‘balked’, but eventually succumbed. In November 2001, the LA Water and Power authority breached the LA Aqueduct, turning water out on to the ‘Owens lake for the first time in 90 years’ as part of a broader scheme to transform the lake into mud flats, preventing particulate matter becoming airborne. By 2013, LA was devoting 25 billion gallons of water annually, and $1.3 billion in dust abatement. However, it wasn’t until Eric Garcetti became the mayor of LA, that the legal battles drew to a close, and the LA Water and Power department began to cooperate fully. The city used bulldozers to dig deep furrows, helping to capture and retain loose dust. Promising ‘clean air for Owens Valley and allowing Los Angeles to save 3 billion gallons of water annually — a classic win-win’.

Incidents of the successful enforcement of air regulation are few and far between. Thanks to California’s robust environmental regulation, in combination with the tireless pursuits of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, Owen Valley residents received help. However, it hardly makes up for 100 years of economic decline and the severe health problems that resulted. Next week we will take a closer look at Environmental justice, what it actually means, and what it entails.

Thank you for reading!

Braxton Little, J., 2015. Keeping the dust down in California’s Owens Valley. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 31 January 2020].

Jacobs, J., 2016. DEAD SEAS: Infamous water heist — and hubris — reap poison whirlwind. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 29 December 2020].

Jenkins, M 2002. A dusty lake is plumbed halfway back to life. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 30 December 2020].

Lloyd, J. and 4, N., 2017. How Water Gets From the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Los Angeles — H2O IQ. [online] H2O IQ. Available at: <; [Accessed 29 December 2020]. 2013. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 29 December 2020].

Sierra Club Angeles Chapter. n.d. Los Angeles Depends on Imported Water. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 29 December 2020].

Swyngedouw, E. and Heynen, N., 2003. Urban Political Ecology, Justice and the Politics of Scale. Antipode, 35(5), pp.898-918.

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