Dust storm at Owens Lake - Photo by Brian Russell, Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District.
From the "Land of Flowing Water"
to the Land of Swirling Dust
by Jamie Della
Water is life
Hilton Creek begins on the east slope at the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. All year, it flows downhill, through the native habitat of Long Valley and into Crowley Lake. Once, kneeled in the tall grass, I watched a brown trout lay her eggs in an eddy of the creek, her spawning site.
Water is life: without it nothing grows.
The builders and supporters of the Los Angeles Aqueduct have told the most dominant, widely spread narrative about the Eastern Sierra for more than one hundred years. They say the land was always parched, a cracked bed of dust and dirt. If that was so, why did Paiute people, who have lived here for thousands of years, refer to their homeland as Payahuunadü: Land of Flowing Waters?
The transformation of Payahuunadü from the land of flowing waters to the land of swirling dust has thwarted generational strength and wealth, thus creating a lack of economic sovereignty that has been covered up and mostly ignored.
In truth, how has the victors’ perspective ever helped the people they have vanquished? Allow Every Last Drop to show you the other side of this story: from the memories and experiences of those who live and work in the Eastern Sierra - from Tribal people and their nations, to ranchers to environmental organizations, to Japanese Americans unjustly interned as though they were prisoners of war during World War II. The stories we curate for you are not solely based in the long ago past, but current events that you can influence.
From Flowing Water to Swirling Dust
Owens Lake held water continuously, and at times overflowed to the south, for at least the last 800,000 years. However, when the creeks were diverted away from Owens Lake into the L.A. Aqueduct, the lake bed dried after only 13 years, through a process called desiccation. As surface and groundwater diversion increases, arid-land surfaces that were previously wet or stabilized by vegetation become susceptible to deflation by wind, resulting in desertification and dust storms.
The creeks which used to fill Owens Lake carried rock and soil particles down the steep mountain faces. As gravity pulled the water downward, rock and soil particles became fragmented into ever smaller pieces, which remained innocuous for as long as they were covered by water. What got deposited in Owens Lake, in addition to what we would call rocks, was soil of all size classes: sand, silt, and clay.
Today, underneath the dry lake bed, a large brine pool saturates the sediments at shallow depths and creates a salt-encrusted top layer. The frequent high winds in the Owens Valley cause larger particles to start bouncing (saltating) across the dry lakebed surface, also collecting fine clay, and the resulting dust, which we call PM10, is lifted into the air.
Once airborne, these microparticles pose serious threats to the health of humans and livestock for miles around by inducing a medical condition known as dust pneumonia. When particles with a diameter of less than ten microns are inhaled, they easily slip past the body’s first line of defense, the mucus in our nose and mouth, move through cilia-lined bronchi and into the lungs. Once inside the lungs, PM-10 particles rip and tear through our alveoli creating permanent scarring. The result is the incapacitation of the body to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide, which can cause a myriad of health problems and ultimately lead to death.
Current Dust Concerns
The artificial desiccation of Owens Lake created the single largest source of PM-10 dust in the United States. Dust storms from the dry lake bed have deeply impacted the air quality in a large region around it for generations. Salt-rich dust blowing from the Owens Lake playa is largely explored in the film Manzanar Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust, which was released in July 2021. The film’s director, Ann Kaneko offers a modern and complex perspective:
“As I began to do research on Manzanar and the Owens Valley, which I later came to know as Payahuunadü, I was dumbfounded when I read that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power owned over 90 percent of the Valley. As a third-generation L.A. resident, I knew that much of our water came from the Sierras, but it was always a vague concept. I didn’t fully realize that L.A. held title to the land and water rights of so much land that was the watershed for the L.A. Aqueduct. I was embarrassed of my ignorance.
“Having grown up in the 1970s, I had lived through drought years, and my mother had a ritual of flushing our toilets with grey water. I learned how precious water was, but I had no idea that the place where Japanese Americans like my mother had been incarcerated was also where we got our water. What had made this a rich homeland for Native Americans was also the reason it was desirable to the LADWP. It was hard to fathom how this municipal entity held title to so much property in Inyo County, outside of the city’s boundaries. Now I understood why this Valley was so untouched and dry—it wasn’t just a happy accident that it remained undeveloped.”