owensdrylake



I've shifted some previous Hilton Creek web pages over to the Owens Dry Lake site to limit congestion.  Please continue on to owensdrylake.com if you have interest in the following:


deathvalley offroadthe darkside

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Owens Lake is a large dry lake in eastern California's Owens Valley, located about 5 miles south of Lone Pine, California. Unlike most dry lakes in the Basin and Range Province, which have been dry for thousands of years, Owens held significant water until 1924, fed by the Owens River and other Eastern Sierra streams like Cottonwood Creek, Carroll Creek, and Ash Creek. Even the occasional cloudburst from the Inyo's fed water into the lake.

Changes in climate since the end of the last ice age have slowly shrunk the size of the lake from at least twice its current area and more than 250 feet deep to its recorded history depth of 30 feet and 10 by 15 mile size.

Before the lake dried up, a chemical plant at Bartlett evaporated brine to extract chemicals. A charcoal kiln burned wood from Cottonwood Canyon near the lake to feed silver and lead smelters across the lake at Swansea. Cartago was a port out of which a barge-like vessel, the Bessie Brady (launched in 1872), cut the three-day freight journey around the lake to three hours. Much of the freight it carried was silver-lead bullion mined from the Cerro Gordo mines which at its height was so productive that bars of the refined metals had to wait in large stacks before teamsters could haul it to Los Angeles in a trying three-week journey (one way). This situation improved after the formation of the Cerro Gordo Freighting Company. Keeler, now nearly deserted, is a town near the lake that once had a population of 5,000 people and was the center of trade for the Cerro Gordo mine in the 1870's. Its current population is only about 50 people and continues to fall as residents die from lung cancer or relocate. In 1879 silver mining ended but the town was saved when the Carson & Colorado Railroad built narrow-gauge rail tracks to the town. The town then became a soda, salt and marble shipping center until 1960 (the rail line was sold to Southern Pacific Railroad in 1900).

However, starting in 1913, the streams that fed Owens were diverted by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to feed the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the lake level started to drop quickly. As the lake dried-up, soda processing at Keeler switched from relatively cheap chemical methods to more expensive physical ones. The Natural Soda Products Company sued the city of Los Angeles and built a new plant with a $15,000 settlement. A fire destroyed this plant shortly after it was built but the company rebuilt it on the dry lakebed in the 1920's.

During the unusually wet winter of 1937, LADWP diverted water from the aqueduct into the lake bed, flooding the soda plant. Because of this the courts ordered the city to pay $154,000. After an unsuccessful appeal attempt to the state supreme court in 1941, LADWP built the Long Valley Dam which impounded Lake Crowley for flood control. After another big winter in 1969, boats and water skiers made an uncommon showing on the Owens.

The lake is now a large salt flat or playa whose surface is made of a mixture of clay, sand, and a variety of minerals including halite, mirabilite, thenardite and trona. In wet years these minerals form a chemical soup in the form of a small brine pond within the playa. When conditions are right, bright pink halophilic (salt-loving) bacteria spread across the salty lakebed. Also, on especially hot summer days when ground temperatures exceed 150 F, water is driven out of the hydrates on the lake bed creating a muddy brine. More commonly, periodic winds stir up noxious alkali dust storms which carry away as much as four million tons of dust from the lake bed each year, causing respiratory problems in nearby residents and visitors.

This once blue, saline lake was a very important feeding and resting stop for millions of waterfowl each year and is still considered to be a Nationally Significant Bird Area by the Audubon Society even though Owens is now a mostly dry lake. At the playa's shore, a chain of wetlands, fed by springs and artesian wells, keep part of the former Owens Lake ecosystem alive. Snowy Plovers nest at Owens along with several thousand Snow Geese and ducks. As part of an air quality mitigation settlement, LADWP is shallow flooding 10 square miles (26 km) of the salt pan to help minimize alkali dust storms. Even this limited amount of water is helping to buoy the lake's ecosystem causing hope in conservationists that an expanded shallow flooding program could do even more. There are no serious plans, however, to restore Owens to anything resembling a conventional lake. To date the dry lake mitigation costs have gone from an initial 120 million dollars to over 400 million dollars. Adding to that expense is 10% of the pristine aqueduct water that is now used annually on the dry lake. Runaway costs result in increased water rates for Los Angeles residents.

The artificial desiccation of Owens Lake has created the single largest source of PM-10 dust in the United States. Dust storms from the dry lake bed are a significant health hazard to residents of Owens Valley and nearby areas, and impact air quality in a large region around the lake bed. Salt-rich dust derived from the Owens Lake playa is deposited in significant quantities, much larger than those elsewhere in southern Nevada and California, to distances of at least 40 km north and south of the playa. The dust-flux measurements indicate that significant quantities of salt-rich dust are probably being added to the soils in the region around Owens Lake playa, which may affect soil pH and vegetation. Owens Lake is an extreme example of the potentially destabilizing effect on land surfaces and vegetation by the extraction of surface and ground water in desert regions.
 
(more on Owens Valley water history)
 
(and a newer essay that comes recommended)
 
SOURCES CITED
Wikepedia - 2007
Reheis, M.C. - Owens (dry) Lake: A Human Induced Dust Problem, 1991-1994
Connolly, J.R. - Hippies Don't Smoke My Salt Grass, 1996
Slipp, I. - Boulder Creek or Bust: Tips and Traps of the Owens Lake Playa, 1998






Memorial weekend 2008 update: You've probably seen before pictures of the Owens dry lake and now here are some after.  It was a big day at Owens lake!  Had been a few years since we've spent any quality time there due to an increase in biting insects, scientists, and unfriendly (access wise) lake rehabilitation contractors.  Things have definitely changed for the better.  One lake worker was happy to see us one morning as we made our way to the Keeler dump.  We also visited the Swansea petroglyphs and they were astounding.


Shack stew can't be beat, however these cans couldn't survive the past few years. Some no longer held any moisture.


Actually it wasn't that hot to begin with, now it is rather paste like in consistency.

 
Out in the lake on our row-boat, looking towards Swansea and the Inyo mountain range.  One could almost expect the Bessie Brady steaming by with a full load of silver bars.


Coso Mountains in background, impressive elevated road (lots of rip-rap to protect the edges) with many short spurs to explore and bird watch.  Lots and lots of birds all around, I believe they are keeping the insects down.  Early mornings and evenings flocks of birds would sweep through our camp combing up the bugs.  A few syllables on access: according to a sign it is now permitted provided one stays on designated roads only.  Gates were left open and unlocked -- generous, I must say. Oh, my tooth! My tooth! It feels like Gremlins are gremling in it!


Habitat ponds.  All sorts of critters and birds making noise!  Nothing beats pristine aqueduct water on a parched Owens dry lake.
 

Owens (dry) Lake steering committee on re-watering efforts and beer hydration.
 
Many years back in Mammoth Lakes a county worker asked me, what is owensdrylake all about?  At the time I didn't have a complete answer.
 
Over the years I still think about it - owensdrylake is:
 
  • Anyone or anything that is used up by the city of Los Angeles and left to blow in the wind.
  • A symbol of living in a colonial territory under DWP rule, or USFS, BLM, or FOI for that matter.
  • A chance at a new life, freedom, with a drive to never stop questioning, learning, reading, or helping.
  • History of people, past, present, and future.
  • Land.
  • Dreams.
  • Sometimes tinged with red.
  • Just a hotmail address.
  • Incomplete, or rather, a work in progress.
  • Slowly getting fenced in - is that you LADWP?  *nope, checked it was a local rancher, and if it works to keep cattle off the 136 then it's a good project.

owensdrylake is sometimes the opposite of hiltoncreek - continue on to www.owensdrylake.com?


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