The recently opened Owens Lake Trails, includes a total of four miles of walking paths, overlook areas and land art installations which aims to enhance public access, recreation, and wildlife habitat while educating visitors about LADWP’s dust control efforts on the lakebed.
I’ve long been fascinated with the story of how LA got its water. If you’ve seen Roman Polanski’s celebrated 1974 film, “Chinatown,” or read Marc Reisner’s 1986 account of Western water management, “Cadillac Desert,” you already have a pretty good idea of how the story played out. For those of you who don’t know the story, here’s a brief synopsis. As Los Angeles grew in the late 19th century, it started to outgrow its water supply. Fred Eaton, mayor of Los Angeles, realized that water could flow from Owens Valley to Los Angeles via an aqueduct. The aqueduct construction was overseen by William Mulholland and was finished in 1913. The water rights were acquired through political fighting and, as described by one author, “chicanery, subterfuge … and a strategy of lies.” Since 1913, the Owens River had been diverted to Los Angeles, causing the ruin of the valley’s economy. By the 1920s, so much water was diverted from the Owens Valley that agriculture became difficult. This led to the farmers trying to destroy the aqueduct in 1924. Los Angeles prevailed and kept the water flowing. By 1926, Owens Lake at the bottom of Owens Valley was completely dry due to water diversion.
The dry bed of Owens Lake has produced enormous amounts of windblown dust since the desiccation of the lake. The term “Keeler fog” (for the town on the east side of the lake), was coined locally decades ago for the pervasive, unusually fine-grained, alkaline dust that infiltrates the smallest cracks and contaminates residences. Litigation commenced in the 1970s to force LADWP to mitigate the blowing dust, and over the years, beginning in 2001, various mitigation measures were put in place at the lake which has successfully mitigated 96% of the toxic dust emissions. Complete mitigation is expected by 2017.
The Owens Lake Trails project was designed in partnership with LADWP, community stakeholders and other interested parties, including California State Lands Commission, Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, the Paiute-Shoshone Tribes, and the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society.
The California State Lands Commission, which owns the majority of the Owens Lake land and leases some of it back to LADWP, required a public access and recreation component at the lake as part of its lease agreement.
The Owens Lake Trails satisfy the public access, education and recreation component of the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program and was required to meet the overall program’s requirements of controlling dust; protecting, creating and enhancing wildlife habitat; protecting cultural resources; providing area-wide economic development, and creating a view shed that is in harmony with the surrounding environment.
The “dust” may have settled but warning signs remain.
The Owens Lake Trails officially opened to the public on April 29, 2016. When I visited the following week, no other visitors could be found. I also failed to meet all six of the above safety policies. Oops!
The Owens Lake Trails feature three trail areas – The Boulder Creek Trailhead, Plaza Trailhead and Dirty Socks Trailhead. The trailheads feature land art installations designed by Perry Cardoza of Nuvis Landscape Architecture and engineered by CDM Smith.
The Boulder Creek and Dirty Socks locations feature round metal shade structures with benches that mimic a cross-section of the historic Los Angeles Aqueduct.
While the round metal shade structures were pretty cool to see, the best part about visiting the Owens Valley Trails is being able to drive around the lake itself. While directions to the three trail areas are provided via a brochure that highlight the designated roads that should be followed while traveling within the lakes boundaries, for some reason I wasn’t able to find any of them and instead spent the next couple of hours aimlessly driving down dozens of roads that I hoped would eventually lead me to the next trail area or an exit.
The LADWP has been forced to spend some $2 billion to engineer a dramatic pollution fix, one of the great engineering fixes of the 21st century. The hardscrabble project is a patchwork of dust-smothering techniques, including gravel, flooded ponds and rows of planted vegetation that cover nearly 50 square miles — an area more than twice the size of Manhattan.
The birds sure didn’t seem to mind the green water.
There is also about 3.5 square miles of managed vegetation being used as a dust control measure. The vegetation consists of saltgrass, which is a native perennial grass highly tolerant of the salt and boron levels in the lake sediments.
The construction of dust mitigation features on Owens Lake have created incredibly productive habitat for birds and other wildlife.
In spring and fall, tens of thousands of shorebirds, waterfowl, and other migratory bird species stop-over to rest and feed on alkali flies, brine shrimp, and other invertebrates in the shallow flooding dust control areas and natural springs around the lake.
Birds that utilize this habitat travel from as far south as South America and as far north as Canada. Over 100 different species of birds have been observed at Owens Lake. In a single day during peak migration, over 75,000 birds can be observed using Owens Lake. Fewer numbers of birds breed and winter at Owens Lake during other parts of the year.
Kiosk constructed for the NUVIS Owens Lake landscape project.
The Plaza Trailhead’s central feature is Plover Wing Plaza, inspired by the Snowy Plover and serves as a gathering place for visitors.
The sloping stone columns of the shade structure reflect the shape of the Snowy Plover’s curved wing while in flight.
Cut-outs in the steel overhang structure cast silhouettes on the concrete of birds in flight.
In the center of the plaza is a large boulder nestled in a “nest” of smaller rocks. Snowy Plover are known to nest in gravel on the ground.
Looking out over the lake, visitors can see 14 mound-like structures intended to look like whitecap waves.
These metaphorical whitecaps are varied in size and placed in locations that will assist with dust control by keeping surrounding lake particles from being gathered up by the wind.
The large rocks used to create the whitecaps create habitat for small reptiles, insects and mammals (like dogs).
Surrounding the plaza structure are gravel paths and roads that lead visitors to habitat islands, marshes, reflecting ponds, and local fauna, creating public access opportunities for bird watchers, artists, scientists and all others.
Five directional concrete bands point to important peaks in the distance. Both the name of the peak and elevation are blasted into the concrete.
Keynot Peak (11,102 feet)
Olancha Peak (12,132 feet)
The Owens Lake Trails project cost $4.6 million dollars to complete, a drop in the bucket compared to the $2 billion dollars (and counting) that the LADWP has spent so far on the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program. Yeah, it’s a lot of money but at least the air is cleaner and the birds are back.