2 May 2008

Vacation Photos

I've been on a camping trip for the past few days (I wrote and pre-posted Sunday - Thursday posts), and I've got some interesting water-related photos [click to see full size].

The first two are from what's left of Owens Lake, a "dry lake" that got that way when LADWP exported most of the water in Owens Valley via the LA Aqueduct.* As you can see, the lakebed is the source of (unhealthy) dust that blows all over the place on windy days. LADWP is -- under court order -- trying to minimize the dust by spreading enough water to keep it in muddy form (second photo). As far as I can tell, they are not succeeding.

This third photo is of Mono Lake, which almost went the way of Owens Lake. LADWP (again), was exporting a lot of water from the area and the lake level was dropping. As water levels dropped, the volcanic island in the photo -- a site of nesting birds -- was linked to the shore via a landbridge, and predators started eating all the eggs and young birds. The environmentalists won a court order that now requires that Mono Lake remain above a certain level -- to keep that landbridge underwater.

Bottom Line: Water exports can devastate places left high and dry. It is for this reason that water rights are tricky: Excessive transfers can destroy the environment. These examples do not mean that water rights, trades or exports are a bad idea. They only serve as a reminder that (1) water transfers should be implemented gradually and (2) water transfers from area of origin should probably be capped at some level consistent with the steady-state environment. (I am explicitly excluding "origin" areas that have water brought from elsewhere, e.g., Imperial Valley.)

* These exports started in 1913 and are important to the plot of the movie Chinatown (1974), a film that combines two stories: Los Angeles' 1915 annexation of the San Fernando Valley and lobbying for the Colorado River Aqueduct in early 30s. In the film, water managers dump water to create a "drought" and scare citizens into paying for an expensive project to import water. After the project is built, the dumping stops and the new supplies (now surplus) are suddenly available to outlying areas that the water managers (conveniently) bought for pennies. The managers get rich, and the hero (Jack Nicholson) is disillusioned by their abuse of power.


Francis said...

Please note that the restrictions you would impose on water transfers are inconsistent with the idea of an open water "market".

That's one highly-regulated market you're thinking of. In fact, much like the one that now exists.

David Zetland said...

I am not implying the restrictions that you are inferring. I am saying that a water market will probably take the form of cap and trade, which is highly efficient.

Anonymous said...

A tip for a future book about the managment of water resources, the value of water, and the cost vs. benefit of massive environmental reclamation: Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Project. This might be Calidac Desert, volume 2. I don't pretend to know very much about the big picture politics behind the project, but as a key technical worker (inside the project for years on behalf of LADWP--partial disclosure at least)I observed how water bureaucracy and environmental regulators have made major decisions about the use of water and dust control at Owens Lake with most of the Public likely unaware of the fascinating water/environmental/dollar tradeoffs underway. LADWP chose the cheapeast form of dust control (various flooding technologies) that use approximately 3 or 4 times the water per acre than the ~2X higher capital cost and higher risk drip irrigated "managed vegation" option. I understood that LADWP received more scruitany for dust control capital expenditures from their Board and City Council than was received for the water utility rate increases they had to seek to buy higher cost replacement water from MWD--thus they chose the cheapest capital cost option but the most water intensive option (tens of thousands of acre feet more water consumed per year) to control dust. The Air quality regulator, "Great Basin," also pushed for the use of the more water intensive technologies reportedly due to their higher efficiency in controlling dust, but also possibly due to personal bitterness and a desire for punitive measure against LADWP for "screwing" the Valley for so many years. If you are a birder you love "shallow flood", if you love water conservation you should be a fan of "managed vegetation." Then there is the Snowey Plover trade-off--an example of threatened species protection at all costs even in the face of massive new habitat created by the "shallow flood". Recently the "moat and row" trade-off, a promising zero or low-water technology of berms and ditches to control dust that was killed apparently for aestetic? reasons--again water conservation seems to be trumped by other factors. Regardless of your environmental or political bias, there are some fascinating aguaeconomic and aguaenvironment trade-offs ongoing at Owens Lake.

I prefer to contribute anonymously and encourage those without history or bias and a greater capacity for the big picture to dig in and tell the story on this $500M and counting project.


Jackie said...

And people fled tha midwest for California because they ran out of water and couldn't take the dust.

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