During the 20th century, the city of Los Angeles diverted surface water flowing into Owens Lake for water supply, transforming the large, closed-basin, saline lake into a small brine pool surrounded by dry playa. Under high winds, the exposed lakebed produced large amounts of airborne dust, resulting in the highest concentrations of airborne particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter of 10 micrometers or less (PM10) in the United States. Since 2000, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), at the direction of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (District), has been constructing and implementing dust control measures (DCMs) on the dry lakebed, with the objective of meeting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for PM10 and the PM10 standards set by the state of California. LADWP reported that it has spent $2.1 billion on dust control efforts as of May 2019 and that many of the DCMs require large amounts of water, energy, and maintenance to sustain their performance.1 Shallow flooding is, by far, the most widespread DCM, by surface area, that is applied at Owens Lake. Other DCMs, such as managed vegetation and gravel, are also applied over several areas on the lakebed, and a few small areas ordered for PM10 management are currently uncontrolled. On average since 2007, water use for dust control required 31 percent of LADWP’s fresh water supplies available at Owens Lake, 2 with a range of 17 to 51 percent.
In 2014, a Stipulated Judgment agreed to by LADWP and the District3 ended litigation concerning dust control requirements and acknowledged the need “for additional effective DCMs that do not rely on water that can be substituted in areas currently under control or applied in areas ordered to be controlled.” The Judgment also acknowledged “the need to balance the requirements to control dust emissions and conserve water with the requirements to minimize impacts to cultural and biological resources.” As part of the Judgment, LADWP and the District agreed to contract with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to establish the Owens Lake Scientific Advisory Panel (OLSAP, or the panel) to provide ongoing advice on the reduction of PM10 in the Owens Valley. In addition, the Judgment intends the panel to foster communication and collaboration between the LADWP and the District within this context.
The panel’s first task is to evaluate the effectiveness of alternative DCMs for their dust control and water use. The task includes consideration of the associated energy, environmental, and economic impacts and assessing the durability and reliability of such DCMs.
In interpreting its task, the panel was informed by the definition of environment provided in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which encompasses impacts on land, air, water, minerals, flora, fauna, ambient noise, and objects of historical or aesthetic significance. The panel discussed key factors within the broad context of that definition with implications for dust management. The panel assessed 15 DCMs (see Box S-2) that represent a range of mitigation approaches that are either being applied at Owens Lake or at various stages of development. The panel’s evaluation criteria included reported PM10 control efficiency, water use, capital and operating costs, habitat value, protection of cultural resources, durability, reliability, and other factors.
DCMs applied at Owens Lake during the past 20 years have significantly reduced PM10 concentrations in the Owens Valley, although further progress in controlling dust is needed to meet air quality standards. The panel evaluated 15 DCMs based on their potential effectiveness in reducing PM10 emissions, water use, and environmental impacts. Based on available data, none of the control measures has been documented to achieve mandated levels of dust control while substantially reducing water use (compared to shallow flooding) and consistently providing quality habitat, although some measures show promise with the need for additional research and testing. Progress toward these multiple goals, including protection of environmentally sensitive areas by reducing land disturbance from DCMs, can be more effectively achieved through a systems approach that considers outcomes over a large spatial scale and interactions among control measures. To inform these decisions, additional research is needed on individual and hybrid DCMs and on the landscape-scale effects of dust control configurations. Evaluation of operational performance of DCMs should be based on airborne PM10 measurements rather than surrogate measures, such as the percentage of a control area that must be covered by vegetation or surface water. Using a systems approach and evaluating DCM performance with PM10 measurements would promote innovative and hybrid strategies for dust control.