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Moonscape Reminder: Owens Lake December 31, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in societal commentary.
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This was the winning entry in the 1997 Outdoor Writers Association college essay competition. It was based on my first geology field trip, in 1995, with my introductory geology class at Caltech. I pulled it out later for an English class, and my prof advised me to update the current state of things as well as make it more understandable for the non-Californian. Since then, it’s been sitting in storage, so I thought I’d pull it out and share it with the rest of the world.

I stood on the edge of the largest crater I’d ever seen. The frigid wind nipped at my cheeks as I looked at the lakebed covered in crystals. There were some patches of blue, some of pink, but most of the crystals were white. On my right was a small building with dull grey siding. The salt-mining facility contained in the tired building was abandoned shortly after the more exotic crystals had been leeched from the lakebed, adding to an already miserable and lonely scene.

“This was a lake,” I kept repeating to myself, still unable to believe that the hole in front of me had once contained millions of gallons of water.

“And we drained it.” A wave of guilt washed over me that permanently altered my view of our world.

I used to believe that environmentalists were extremists and had no understanding of normal, natural processes. When I saw the desiccated bottom of what used to be Owens Lake, I suddenly realized that I was the one who didn’t understand. I finally realized what my geology professor meant when he said that humans, unlike any other animal, had irreversibly changed the face of the planet.

I had, despite all my training to be a scientist, ignored the facts indicating that humanity was disturbing, and in some cases destroying, our environment. I’d grown up in North Dakota and took it for granted that people practiced conservation. We all understood intimately that, directly or indirectly, we were connected to the land. Long before I was born, farmers and the state universities began developing ways to conserve the water and the precious, nutrient-rich top soil.

As early as fourth grade, I was taught how important it was to plant windbelts of trees so that the soil couldn’t blow away, as would leaving plant cover. I learned that a farmer should plow circles around a hill rather than straight rows so that water would not wash dirt down the hill when it rained. I was told that crop rotation would prevent soil exhaustion. University employees presented to my class pictures of gullies where the rain had washed away the ground, resulting not only in a loss of farmland but a loss in water for crops. When I moved to California, I assumed that the people here had the same respect for the land and water as I did.

I didn’t realize that even in North Dakota, my beliefs in the importance of conservation were somewhat extreme. I took it for granted that everyone valued land, recycled, and tried not to waste water; in other words, everyone practiced conservation. If everyone did these things and valued our resources as much as I did, then I felt that environmentalism was an extremist position which placed the value of nature above the value of humanity.

The reality is that conservation is very often not practiced until production slows down and the land has already been damaged through excessive use. People throw away their soda cans and bottles every day. Seeing Owens Lake changed my understanding of the environemental movement. I realized that I actually was an environmentalist because there aren’t that many people who seriously care about taking care of the environment.

Owens Lake is one of the biggest examples of this lack of concern. The lake was over 150 square miles, 200 feet deep and held water from the spring melting in the surrounding Sierra Nevada and White Mountains for over 800,000 years. In 1905, irrigation of the surrounding Owens Valley began, and the lake level began to drop. About the same time, Los Angeles County began purchasing water rights to nearly all the water in the valley as well as in areas north of the valley. In 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed, carrying Owens Lake water nearly 250 miles south to Los Angeles at a rate of nearly 27 million gallons per minute. By 1926, the lake was entirely drained and all that remained was an enormous salt bed and the aqueduct. The aqueduct was then carrying water from Mono Lake, which would have met the same fate had it not been for the environmental movement.

The lake was mined for exotic salt crystals until it was not financially viable. In the past twenty years, the EPA has begun to force Los Angeles County to clean up the area because the salt has become a human hazard. During wind storms in spring and fall, over 11 tons of 10 micron or smaller salt particles are pulled into the air. Owens Valley is the largest producer of pollution of this type in the United States, and the residents have had surging levels of asthma. Additionally, due to the dryness and harsh conditions created by the empty lakebed, much of the native fauna and flora are now gone from the valley.

Ironically, part of the solution has been for Los Angeles to keep the lake bed moist, pulling water out of its aqueduct, which has now reached another 450 miles north, and to plant saltgrass as ground cover.

Seeing this destruction reinforced, in a vivid and memorable way, the lessons I had learned as a child. I had never realized that I was irrevocably changing the landscape of a distant place every time I drank a cup of water. I imagine a majority of the thirteen million people in Los Angeles County don’t realize where their water comes from. If they were to see the gaping hole that used to be Owens Lake, perhaps it would change them as well.

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