Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Owens Lake -- Sacred Site Battle

Owen's Lake near Los Angeles California is another American Indian sacred site "tipping point" as groups clash regarding the current use/upkeep of an area. It is one of the dustiest places on the earth,  and is listed as THE dustiest in North America.  It's currently in the news because an effort to keep the toxic sediments from becoming airborne clashes with the wishes of the Paiute who are requesting that the pollution mitigation cease -- allowing the site to be in a natural state.

One Hundred Years Ago
Oral tradition and white history corroborate each others' stories of a massacre in 1863 where over thirty Paiute were chased into the lake where they drown or were shot.  Another tragic chapter from that era.  Over time, because of the human-caused environmental damage to this site, the massacre site was unknown/unproven until recently.

Background: In the early 1900's to supply LA with water, the lake was used until it eventually dried up (a tragic reminder of the cost of unsustainable consumerism and that our decisions lead to long term consequences). In order to keep down the toxic dust, the site has been treated--and essentially hiding the site until now.   Both archeologists and Paiute agree that this is the site of the massacre.  But that leads to other dicey questions...

 At the heart of the issue is one basic question I've seen repeatedly played out across North America...
what make land sacred? 

Then applying that definition, is this site sacred?
And if so, then what?   If so, then how do you decide the process for making a decision?  Who has the right to weigh in on the decisions?  Who mediates?  Who ultimately decides? The Paiute claim a spiritual and historical and cultural connection to this site. Government claims the responsibility to mitigate the pollution risk.  Two clear and clashing views of a site.  Now what??

The following is summarized from a Robert Stewart online educational site
The dustiest place in North America is the area around Owens Lake in Owens Valley, California. It is the single largest source of PM-10 dust in the United States. Unlike the Bodélé, (the dustiest place on the earth) which is due to natural causes, the Owens Valley problem is due to human causes.
Located in a semi-arid area with little rain, around 300–400 mm/year (15 inches per year). Los Angeles Department of Water and Power obtained water rights to almost all water in the Owens Valley during the early 20th century to provide water for the growing population.   In 1905 LA topped around 100,000.  To continue growing, LA needed to import water from a secure source in a wetter region and the Owens Lake valley, 250 miles to the northeast was selected.
    map of california showing owens valley and its relation to los angeles
  1. Water in the Owens Valley comes from streams flowing eastward out of the Sierra Nevada. Much of the water sinks into the porous soil of the valley, creating a large pool of shallow groundwater, mostly in the northern end of the valley.
  2. In the early years of the 20th century, Los Angeles secretly bought land and all associated surface and groundwater rights from large land owners in the valley. Later the purchases were made openly. By 1935 Los Angeles owned most of the land in the valley and the city had captured most of the water flowing eastward out of the Sierra Nevada into the Owens River.
  3. The water in the Owens River, and much groundwater were diverted into the California Aquaduct and sent to Los Angeles.
  4. With no inflow of water, Owens Lake dried up.
    By 1926 all that remained was a dry lake bed. 
Map Details: Owens Lake is the blue area in the center (east of Visalia and north of Ridgecrest). The Sierra Nevada mountains are west of the valley and the Inyo Mountains are east. Dashed line is boundary of California.From Google Maps. The dry lake bed is the current pollution dust source.
  1. The lake is in a very dry area, the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada. Rainfall varies from 6 inches/year (150 mm/yr) in wet years to 3 inches/year (75 mm/yr) in dry years. Sediments are dry most of the year, especially in summer (75%–98% of the rain falls in the winter).
  2. High winds occur frequently in the valley, tending to blow along the length of the valley, especially during spring and early fall when the high valley walls funnel and accelerate winds aloft into the valley. The very strongest winds, associated with rotors in the lee of the Sierras, blow from west to east across the valley as strong storms come ashore from the Pacific.
  3. The lake bed is covered with alkaline salts composed of sodium sulfates and sodium carbonates that are easily eroded. The lake has no natural outlet, and all salts contained in the water flowing into the lake over at least the last 800,000 years stayed in the lake. As the lake dried out, they precipitated onto the bottom (the large white area in the photo below).
  4. The dust is a fine mixture of salt, clay, and sulfates. Dust is up to 30% salt, and it includes important concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, nickel, and chromium. Lake deposits contain 50–150 parts per million of arsenic. For more information read Owens (Dry) Lake, California: A Human-Induced Dust Problem by Marith C. Reheis of the U.S. Geological Survey.
  5. High wind can blow dust from the valley over large areas of the Mojave Desert, impairing the health of 40,000 people.

The US Environmental Protection Agency classified the Owens Valley as a "serious non-attainment area" in 1993, and in 1999 they approved a plan to mitigate the hazard. The plan requires Los Angeles to take steps to mitigate the problem by allowing water to flood the lower parts of the lake keeping it moist, by covering large areas with gravel to reduce wind erosion, and to plant vegetation in some areas. Implementation of the plan was finally started in 2001, but the area was still a nonattainment area in 2007. See A Century Later, Los Angeles Atones for Water Sins in the New York Times.


Thinking about the opportunities we now have for healing:
We cannot take back the massacre itself that happened in 1863. -- Ironcally without this current environmental bi-line, the story might never be told.  How easy it is for Americans to point to other countries and list the historic "sins". 
When will we acknowledge ours as a nation?  When will we apologize? 
When will we teach the tough lessons in order to prevent history from repeating itself?

Here we are in 2013, one hundred years after the massacre.  This morning I pray for the wisdom of those who are in the seats that decide how to decide the next chapter in the Owen's Lake Valley story.