County hears the tale of Owen Lake

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Dust storm, Owens Valley, CA (photo: M Adams)

“I usually start these presentations with ‘There once was a lake named Owen’”, so began Ted Schade’s  talk to the County Board of Supervisors and a crowded room Tuesday morning .


Schade kept the room’s attention as he detailed Owen Lake’s once wet past covering over 110 square miles of lake in Inyo County with Mount Whitney towering in the background. “Owen Lake was one of the largest lakes in California,”  he said. He then superimposed the lake of the turn of the century over the county of Los Angeles, showing the two to be relatively equal in size. “This is a good way to show the size Owen Lake use to be. And the irony is; now all that water is in this county.”


In 1913, Los Angeles received permission to tap into the lake for its citizens, built a pipeline, and diverted much of Owens River into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, causing the lake to turn into a salt flat.

Schade explained that a salt brine was left behind when the lake dried up and, until recently, 80,000 tons of salt was released into the air causing the lake bed to be the most polluted place in the United States, every year. The dust registered 1000 times over the accepted California levels. The EPA says the standard is 150 parts per million of pollutants, at 600 ppm the healthy get sick, Owens Lake ranges from 1400 to 15,000 ppm when the wind blows.

Owen Lake is only one third the size of the Salton Sea. If the sea dries up, the valley can expect to have three times the health risks, be perhaps the most polluted spot, not just in the United States, but the world, if mitigating action is not taken before the sea dries up, Schade warned.

“Even healthy people are adversely affected at these rates.”

Schade said after Los Angeles lost every suit brought against it for polluting the area, LA began three main measures to reduce the salt blowing.

Billions of dollars later, they have part of the playa covered with a thin layer of water, they have planted “salt grass’, and layered 4” of gravel over another spot.  These measures have lowered the dust by 90%  leaving the valley only 100 times more polluted than the accepted state and federal levels.

Schade told the room he became involved in the Salton Sea many years ago, watching the decisions, the water deals, and the court action. “I kind of felt like the boy who cried wolf. I would come down here and I felt like I was looking at Owen Lake at the turn of the century. Except, we don’t have a lake anymore, and you still have yours.”

He said he would hate to have Brad’s kids (Brad Poiriez, Imperial County Air Pollution Control Officer) someday give a presentation that started with, “There once was a sea called Salton.”