Located roughly 220 miles from downtown Los Angeles and fed by run-off from the snowcapped Sierra Nevada, Owens Lake once spanned
110 square miles in the southern end of the Owens Valley.
Owens Lake is the remnant of a large prehistoric freshwater lake that extended some 60 miles up and down the Owens Valley and was over 300 feet deep. Gradually, as the climate of the area changed from post‐glacial to semi‐arid, the lake began to dry up. By the time settlers entered the valley in the mid‐19th century the lake had become a shallow saline desert sink, only a fraction of the size it had been in prehistoric times
Canals built in the late 1800s diverted surface water for crop irrigation in the Owens Valley substantially reducing surface water inflow to Owens Lake.
The lake's water was thought to be "excessively saline. Irrigation diversions by farmers, coupled with drought, dried the lake to about 5% of its historic volume by 1906.
To support a growing population in Los Angeles, LADWP led by William Mullholland, completed the construction of the first LA Aqueduct in 1913, with diversions exposing additional playa. As a result, the exposed lakebed became emissive with dust that needed to be brought under control.
Lakebed has been essentially dry since the late 1920s. Dissolved minerals and salts in the water crystallized into an alkali salt crust as the lake dried up. This crust used to cover much of the lakebed.
Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD) established. the regulatory agency responsible for enforcing air quality standards in the Owens Valley
Beginning in 1980, the GBUAPCD and other researchers studied the lake environment and the mechanisms that caused Owens Lake’s severe dust storms. High winds on Owens Lake have the potential to cause erosion of the salt crust and develop wind‐blown dust. Dust is measured as PM10, or particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter.
Owens Valley Planning Area Best Available Control Measures State Implementation Plan established.
In 1998 the City of LA signed a historic Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the GBUAPCD and accepted responsibility to reduce dust emissions from Owens Lake to meet the NAAQS for PM10 and began the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program to install and operate dust control measures on the lake bed.
The MOA was incorporated into a formal air quality State Implementation Plan (SIP) developed and adopted by the District, and approved by the EPA in October 1999.
Since the early 2000s, LADWP has implemented and maintained the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program, the largest dust control project in the nation. Using a series of federally-approved dust control measures, the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program limits dust emissions, maintains wildlife habitats and protects cultural resources while promoting efficient water use across 48.6 square miles of the exposed Owens Lake playa.
The GBUAPCD prepared subsequent SIP revisions in 2003, 2008,(and again in 2016).
In 2014, GBUAPCD, and the city of LA settled on an agreed-upon approach to control dust emissions in Owens Valley.
This historic agreement led to the development of the 2016 State Implementation Plan, the guiding document for dust compliance at the lake.
Dust at the lake is now more than 99.4% contained. Achieving successful dust control has come at a cost of more than $2.5 billion to LADWP ratepayers, and consumes as much water as the residents of Long Beach each year.
Gifts of Rock and Water
People have long benefitted from the richness of the Owens Lake area. For at least 10,000 years, the Indigenous Peoples of the Owens Valley have lived here and harvested resources, including glass-sharp obsidian for arrow points and spearheads, as well as for food sources. The lake's original name, given by the Nüümü (Owens Valley Paiute), is Patsiata. In the mid-1800s, other resources, like silver and grazing land, began attracting prospectors and settlers. Located high above the town of present-day Keeler, Cerro Gordo, or “fat hill,” yielded the largest silver deposit in California.
Traces of the Past
The region supports grazing land, and mining for soda ash, charcoal, silver, and minerals. Weather worn cattle chutes, abandoned mines, and factories stand as a testament to past human activity. Cerro Gordo remains a ghost town. In Keeler, the Carson and Colorado Railroad Depot and a talc mill still stand. Remnants of the Swansea Pier remain along the east shore. Charcoal kilns, cattle chutes, and a plate glass factory remain on the west shore. Amidst these relics, ranching and mining still take place today.