Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability
Senior Seminar
University of California, Irvine June 1997 

Owens Valley Tragedy

Issue Paper #2 for the

Minor in Global Sustainability


Prepared by Steven Bekedam



Earthís Seemingly Irreparable Landscape


Time and time again it has been seen that human interaction with his/her environment and itís ecosystems has shown to be increasingly arrogant and self-serving. These endless accounts are proven by the amount of important biological diversity that is being lost to the surrounding environment due to these threats of human development and population growth. There are two forms of these losses of diversity by human hand: direct and indirect. Direct losses would be the destruction of an area needed for human requirements be it social or economical. Examples of these losses would be housing, agriculture, and others. Indirect losses would be those caused by the destruction of an area also needed for the same requirements but the areaís commodities which are valued, water, food, land in general, is needed elsewhere. These losses are few in number compared with those of direct losses yet they are of the greatest importance. They are important because they involve the removal of resources of an area in which other inhabitants are dependent upon. A great example of this regrettable indirect expansion is the loss of the rich habitat of the area known as Owens Valley.


Owens Valley History


Owens Valley lies to the east of the Sierra Nevada mountain and west of the White-Inyo mountain ranges, just to the west of the U.S.ís Great Basin. Early settlers to this area, as all other immediate surrounding areaís originally, were Indians, one of the Paiute tribes. This tribe lived by a simple and direct policy in terms of living with the environment. Their food supply was derived from seasonal crops of wild seeds and roots, fishing, and hunting of the deer, antelope, mountain sheep, jackrabbit, and waterfowl which flourished along the valley floor and hillsides. They took only what they required for food and trade. Unfortunately, pioneer expansion soon took precedence with the majority of them being miners who migrated to the region from the east following the Western mines (Sauder, 1994). With this colonization came agricultural expansion as well, which included cattle production and various farming crops. Of course, confrontation, the beginning of a lifetime of fight over Owens Valley, was spurred with the Paiutes over ownership of this rich valley abundant in usable resources. Due to the Paiuteís simple and peaceful attitude, the early pioneers took over the valley and every one of itís resources, placing the Paiuteís out in the cold, where they continued urbanization and agriculture of the landscape.


Owens Valley Habitat


"Vegetation on the floor of Owens Valley, California, is composed predominantly of phreatophytic desert communities that are adapted to small quantities of precipitation and alkaline soils"(Sorenson, 1991). The term "phreatophytic" refers to those plant communities that feed on ground water by extending their roots down to the water table below. This adaptation is necessary due to the low precipitation levels that exist in the area caused by itís demography. The valleyís location is concerned with a rain shadowing effect where all precipitation is deposited on the western side of the Sierra Nevada Range. It is an alkaline habitat because of the soils present which vary in salinity from the accumulation of minerals deposited from the mountains above. "The vegetation type is important because it provides cover for wildlife, stabilizes the soil, and reduces soil loss and air pollution from windblown dust"(Sorenson, 1991). Their are actually four different plant communities which exist in the valley all differing in terms elevation and level of salinity of a given area. These four include: a high ground water alkaline meadow with species including saltgrass, rushes, licorice, and others; a high ground water alkaline scrub which involves saltbush, rabbitbrush, greasewood, and inkweed species; a dryland alkaline scrub that contains sages, scales, winterfat, and peach thorn as some major species; and, a dryland nonalkaline scrub including sagebrush, rabbitbrush, buckwheat, and bitterbrush (Sorenson, 1991). Soils that support this wide range of vegetation are sandy in composition but contain small percentages of finer loams, silts, and clays. These soils are derived from alluvial sources which are deposited on the valley floor. Although this is true, specific material sources, deposition velocities, and presence of lake deposits in the Owens Lake Basin all affect the soilís texture at different parts of the valley (Sorenson, 1991). The existing fauna of the area includes antelope, deer, sheep, and various mesopredators which include jackrabbits and others. Water resources to the valley include major snow melt runoff inputs from the mountain ranges surrounding the valley. Various tributaries to Owens River form from this massive amount of receding water which carry the water down the 80 mile river ending in Owens Lake.


The "Greatest Good"


With further development of the valley for agriculture as described earlier, came a rising interest in the natural water supply that fueled American expansion. This interest involved those of the nearby metropolitan area of Los Angeles. Los Angeles businessmen saw Owens Valley not as a rich habitat of indigenous species that ought to treasured, but instead as a solution - the solution to necessity for an additional permanent water supply. It wasnít long before contracts for the purchase of lands controlling water rights and reservoir sites on Owens River were simply granted. Once this was done, President Roosevelt made the final approval in the interest of what he called "the greatest good for the greatest number of people" (Sorenson, 1991), and the Los Angeles Aqueduct began construction. "No other public work at all comparable in magnitude to the aqueduct has ever been accomplished" (Kelly, 1913). Started in 1908 and finished in 1913, the L.A. aqueduct spans close to 250 miles and brings water to the city at a rate of 27 million gallons per hour. To make the situation more of a travesty, in the first years of the aqueduct, the flow actually exceeded domestic needs of Los Angeles by four times the amount (Sauder, 1994), even with five reservoirs built during the original construction of the aqueduct. To obey California water laws, Los Angeles had to put the water to beneficial use. They did so by using the excess for irrigation purposes, not for Owens Valley like it should have been, but for the proposed expansion of the Los Angeles area into the San Fernando Valley. To make matters even worse, a series of wells were constructed to supply the aqueducts with ground water in times of drought when the aqueduct itself didnít receive enough surface water runoff. In other words, Los Angeles exhausted every possible input of water to the Owens valley. The overall cost of this entire expedition "to set a new standard of public service for American municipalities"(Kelly, 1913) amounted to 23 million dollars.


Consequences of the Aqueduct


As should have been clearly obvious, the ramifications of the removal of the water from Owens River were incredible. Owens Valley residents had, and still have, many problems coping with the fact that Southern Californiaís urban development was more important than their own. Many attacks on the aqueduct itself occurred over the first few years of itís induction, which usually included a release of the water from the aqueduct to the desert valley floor in rebellion. These actions were sparked due to the consequences of local farming crops suffering from the lack of accessible water from the river for irrigation. "Participants [of the fight] understood it as a confrontation between urban progress and the continued existence of local society - a confrontation in which the state would determine who won and who lost"(Walton, 1992). The winner is obvious. More importantly in terms of ecology, because the aqueduct was built 35 miles to the north of Owens Lake, it only took a few years before the lake was entirely dried up, not only the water, but the rich diversity within it. Although the vegetation consists of many desert species which are drought tolerant, long-term existence depends on soil water derived from the water table below (Sorenson, 1991). Because the water table has been decreasing slowly year by year due to the lack of water in general, the vegetation surrounding Owens Lake and itís surrounding areas has been decreasing in terms of productivity and vegetative cover. This leads us to the largest consequence of the water diversion by the Los Angeles aqueduct - the dust storms of Owens Lake that have begun to impact the biota of the region.


Owens Lake Dust Storms


"Owens Lake (dry now) is the largest single source of fugitive dust (dust composed of geological materials released into the atmosphere by human action) per unit area in the United States, with production estimates ranging up to millions of tons annually"(Cahill, 1996). This dust is created by the formation, and then removal by wind, of a crust which forms on the lake. This crust is formed from the discharging saline ground water of the dried lake bed onto the surface (Cahill, 1996). These dust storms, highest episodes in the spring and fall months, are causing a sort of ecological wasteland where nothing can flourish. Not only do these dust storms cause ecological damage but human health concerns as well. The airborne particles which exist in these dust storms are small enough to travel great distances and can be inhaled deeply into the human, and animal, respiratory tracts thereby creating full-scale health hazards. Visual impairment is also an present problem with these increasing dust storms. Thus, these increasingly dangerous dust storms which have been described must be quickly dealt with.


The "Greater Good"


The conflict in which we have just discussed provides us with a warning of the ability of urbanization and itís effects on the surrounding environment. The solution breaks down to the increase in vegetation surrounding the lake. By increasing the vegetation we will see a major decrease in the amount of dust rising from the lake and an improvement in the health and aesthetic conditions overall. Although some small efforts have been made, a larger scale improvement must be implemented. Of course, in order to increase the amount of vegetation we must increase the water to that area. When considering management of the plant communities in Owens Valley, the most important consideration is maintaining water availability in the area (Sorenson, 1991). This can only be accomplished by allowing the flow of Owens River to enter the lake instead of being completely being diverted to the proliferation and growth of the Los Angeles area and itís surrounding communities. This increase in water availability may also bring back those faunal species that were driven to extinction so long ago (around the time of the water diversion) like the antelope, pupfish, and endemic snail species, to name a few. Common sense would say that areas like Los Angeles are already overpopulated as it is. This of course gets into subjects of overpopulation and others that cannot be discussed in the confines of this paper. To conclude, itís time to wake up and realize that we must put an end to this increasing growth and give back to those areas that are of more ecological importance like that of Owens Valley.

Literature Cited

Cahill, Thomas A., Gearhart, Elizabeth A., Gill, Thomas E., Gillette, Dale A., and Reid, Jeffrey S. Saltating Particles, Playa Crusts and Dust Aerosols at Owens(dry) Lake, California in Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, volume 21, July 1996. pgs. 621-637.

Kelly, Allen. Historical Sketch of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Los Angeles Times-Mirror. 1913. pgs. 13-25.

Sauder, Robert A. The Lost Frontier. University of Arizona Press. 1994. pgs. 3-170.

Sorenson, Stephen K., Dileanis, Peter D., and Branson, Farrell A. Soil Water and Vegetation Responses to Precipitation and Changes in Depth to Ground Water in Owens Valley, California. Chapter G in United States Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2370-G. 1991. pgs. G1-G36.

Walton, John. Western Times and Water Wars. University of California Press. 1992. pgs. 131-132.

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