Magazine article Science News

Dried-Up California Lake Gets Muddy Facial

Magazine article Science News

Dried-Up California Lake Gets Muddy Facial

Article excerpt

For as long as most people can remember, much of California's 110-square-mile Owens Lake has been dry as dust. In fact, the area's desiccated lake bed has been the nation's largest source of dust (SN: 10/2/01, p. 218). It's not just any dust that billows off the site, but particles of arsenic-laced silt and salt small enough to be inhaled deeply.

That's about to change, with some of Owens Lake's parched expanse slated to become mud.

About 4 weeks ago, engineers began testing 200 miles of newly installed water pipelines, a web of conduits feeding an 11-square-mile parcel of the lake bed. By year-end, water will pour from more than 5,000 pipeline outlets to keep the ground saturated. The project will require an estimated 4.5 million gallons of water annually--an amount roughly equal to the consumption of 60,000 U.S. households.

This project is the first stage of a new $250 million reclamation project intended to cut the lake's dust generation by 99 percent, according to project manager Theodore D. Schade of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District in Bishop, Calif. Eventually all of the one-third of the Owens Lake bed that has been producing dust will be treated.

Since about the turn of the last century, California has been piping mountain-stream water 250 miles south of its normal path in the Sierra Nevada. This massive diversion transformed a coastal desert into the thriving, densely populated oasis of modern culture known as Los Angeles.

However, that area's gain quickly proved the bane of Owens Lake, a body of water just downstream of the river diversion. After only a few years of the diversion, Owens Lake had vanished. Dust that eroded from the lake bed has contributed in downwind communities to frequent violations of the Clean Air Act standard for particulate pollution. …

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