Owens Lake | From Dust Problems to Towing Icebergs

“Reconstructing the Void, Owens Lake” is the first chapter of the book The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles, edited by Kazys Varnelis and central point of a chapter-by-chapter reading and discussion hosted by mammoth. Although water once flowed into the lake from the Owens River, the lake eventually became “possibly the greatest or most intense human-disturbed dust source on earth”, as reported by Todd Hinkley, for the U.S. Geological Survey in the mid-1990s, after the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power [LADWP] diverted the lower Owens River to the Los Angeles aqueduct in 1913. Barry Lehrman describes the lake like this:

As much artificial as natural, the result is a second nature, a wild, uncontrollable condition created by social, infrastructural, and organic ecologies interacting with the environment and with each other.

The lake is now an extreme example of the destabilizing effect of surface-water extraction in desert regions. Although the river still flows through the upper part of the valley, then is diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct 51 miles upstream from the point where it used to enter Owens Lake.

Owens Lake before it was drained dry by Los Angeles [1911], via Owens Valley History


Saline Valley salt works lake reflection, via Owens Valley History

While reading Reconstructing the Void, we found quite interesting to think about the contradiction behind Los Angeles urban sprawl and the preservation of Owens Lake. To protect the city’s water rights and to be able to manage its water supply througt the aqueduct, a series of legislative acts at the local, state and federal levels effectively prevented development in the area and as a result, the Owens Valley and surroundings have remained rural and is one of the few places in California with no projected growth.

The oxymoron that lies behind urban-sprawl and preservation is something that doesn’t happens so often, thats why the artificial emptyness of Owens Lake is described as the antipode to the sprawling of Los Angeles. In fact, the term Los Angelization is also sometimes used for urban sprawl, as Los Angeles is the most densely populated urbanized area in the United States.

Another interesting issue is that Owens Lake is one of the dustiest places in the world. As reported in the Los Angeles Times [12/17/96]: “One day last year in Keeler, particles surged to a nationwide record that was 23 times greater than a federal health standard allows“. We can also read at studies from the U.S. Geological Survey:

The dry bed of Owens Lake has produced enormous amounts of windblown dust since the desiccation of the lake. The term “Keeler fog” was coined locally decades ago for the pervasive, unusually fine-grained, alkaline dust that infiltrates the smallest cracks and contaminates residences. The lake bed is probably the largest single source of PM10 dust (aerosol particles smaller than 10 microns in aerodynamic diameter) in the United States.


Photograph of Geomet station and dust traps at south end of Owens (dry) Lake, source


Deposits on the lake bed of the former Lake Owens and monitoring station. From Sensit Corporation


The former Lake Owens showing deposits on the bottom of the lake (white areas) and the areas being mitigated to reduce dust (blue and green areas). The view is to the north with the Sierra Nevada on the left. Photo by Charles W. Hull

About the dust problem, Lehrman thinks that the future of dust control on Owens will be a zigzagging wet corduroy of low berms, sheltering water-filled ditches instead of the sparkling braids of water over bright red salt flats that the bubbles create. Currently the City of los Angeles Department of Water and Power [LADWP] is studying the potential of using ground water for a portion of the dust supression activities on the dry Owens lake bed. Studies around the groundwater subbasin has been done to develop a conceptual hydrogeological model, considering rocks, geological processes, groundwater flow mechanism and other aquifer characteristics.

But there are two more lines from Lerhman’s text that keep going around our heads:

Icebergs from Alaska or giant bags of fresh water floated down from the Columbia river are just pipe dreams, since those places need the water too, and the cost of these enterprises appears to be prohibitive.

The speculative idea of transporting Icebergs from Alaska is the most utopic idea to flood again the river and the lake, but it is striking to think that somehow it can be done. When talking about the infrastructure of water, Lehrman pointed that great amounts of ingenuity have been applied to the diversion, capture and storage of water around the world, from the step wells in India, Inca canals, Hopi cisterns, and the dream of towing icebergs to Los Angeles –all of them to allow civilization in a xeric climate. But towing icebergs for fresh water is not an original idea. In October 1977 scientists from 18 nations gathered at Iowa State University, in the town of Ames, for an International Conference on Iceberg Utilization to discuss whether such plans could be put to any practical use. Wraping icebergs in sailcloth and plastic can slow its melting, was said.

So we just keep thinking about the possibility of seeing the lake as proposed by Barry Lehrman in a not so distant future:


An image from Lehrman’s 2005 Masters thesis to restore Owens Lake, source Infrascape Design

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Note: This post is part of the Infrastructural City blogiscussion* | Chapter 1: Owens Lake: Reconstructing the Void *blogiscussion: Term addopted from F.A.D. [Free Association Design]


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