June 13, 2016

Federal-lands ranching: A half-century of decline

How grazing fell from its Western pedestal — and fueled Sagebrush Rebellion.

Tay Wiles and Brooke Warren
High Country News

One of the prime drivers of the 45-year-old Sagebrush Rebellion, the movement to take control of public lands from the federal government, is the sense that rural Western ranchers are bullied by forces beyond their control. That narrative remains compelling, in part because it’s true. Since the 1950s, the ranching industry has been battered by market consolidation, rising operational costs, drought and climate change. Meanwhile, the amount of grazing allowed on federal lands has dramatically fallen. Bureau of Land Management livestock authorizations dropped from over 18 million animal unit months in 1953 to about 8 million in 2014.

Political rhetoric often blames the decline entirely on environmental regulation. But while the 1970s legislative changes have had an impact, there’s a more complex set of forces at work. The market for materials like lamb and wool fell after World War II, for example. Urban development became a factor as the feds sold off land to private buyers. Feedlots proliferated, squeezing smaller ranchers out of the market, and grazing fees rose. Then the advent of range science — which aims to use a coherent scientific method to determine how much grazing the land can sustain — changed everything.

Since then, drought has forced ranchers to sell off animals that their allotments can no longer support. What was then the costliest drought in the nation’s history hit Montana, Idaho and Wyoming particularly hard in the late 1980s, causing $39 billion in damages altogether. The 2002 dry spell, which sparked what was, at the time, one of the biggest fire seasons in Western history, pushed more cattle off the land. The current dry spell has also reduced livestock numbers, particularly in California and Nevada. The effects of drought can linger for years, as ranchers labor to restock, and replacement livestock from other regions struggle, sometimes unsuccessfully, to adapt to a new landscape. And once grazing levels are down, federal agencies historically have “made a habit of not letting them go back up,” says Leisl Carr-Childers, an American West and environmental historian.

BLM and USFS early stocking rates were difficult to measure accurately, as federal policies gave ranchers the incentive to report no more and no fewer animals than they were officially permitted. Read on for a look at 50 years of grazing data, from decades of U.S. Forest Service and BLM reports.

Notes on sourcing and methodology:
  • This data originated from BLM and USFS annual reports.
  • BLM and USFS early stocking rates were difficult to measure accurately, as federal policies gave ranchers the incentive to report no more and no fewer animals than they were officially permitted, which may have differed from actual cattle on the range.
  • Agencies first measured “actually grazed” territory in the ’50s and ’60s by trudging onto rangelands and counting cattle; because of the method’s difficulty, they later began measuring based on billed AUMs.
  • Before 1977, the Forest Service measured by animal-month, so those numbers have been converted to be consistent with animal-unit-month. We followed the agency’s recommendations and multiplied the early numbers by a factor of 1.2. However, this is not an exact conversion.
  • The average weight of a cow has increased since the early 20th century, which means each AUM may have a potentially higher environmental impact.
  • Forest Service data for 1992 and 1999 are unavailable.
This reporting was done with support from Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West.

June 7, 2016

Forget it, Jake: It's Cadiz

The entrance to the Cadiz property | Photo: Chris Clarke

Emily Green

Commentary: Just when it seems that a water grab with the shorthand name of “Cadiz” can’t get any stranger, it can. In May, an appellate court in Orange County affirmed that a suburban water company in Orange County is the rightful municipal steward for a privately run groundwater mining operation 200 miles away in the Mojave, and that its central purpose of exporting desert water for sale to Southern California cities qualifies as “conservation.”

The court might as well have told us that, yes, it's checked, the wolf in the bonnet is our grandmother.

If there is good news in the down-is-up and up-is-down world of what is now known as the "Cadiz Valley Conservation, Recovery and Storage Project," it’s that late last year, public land managers rejected the speculators’ claim to exemption from federal environmental review. Adding to this, an edgy blog run by hedge fund managers argues the company is on the brink of collapse. Those bloggers say they’re “shorting” Cadiz, market speak for betting on its collapse. In the course of what is now Cadiz’s 22-year-bid for water, not a drop has been exported from the desert, but millions of dollars raised by the company still flowed back to the founder — who can now be found running the racetrack at Santa Anita Park.

My, what sharp teeth he has.

It's fitting, somehow, that for many years the public face of Cadiz was a British bon vivant with a history of hoarding politicians so compulsively that House of Cards might reject the script for a Cadiz episode as too improbable. Various accounts in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and London Guardian have Keith Brackpool arriving in the US while still in his twenties in 1988 or '89, as head of the North American operations of a British food multinational Albert Fisher PLC. Big title, short tenure. Brackpool quit in 1992 after it was discovered that he had what the Guardian described as a multi-million dollar share in a direct competitor. It wasn't just any competitor, either, but a subsidiary of Polly Peck, Britain's answer to Enron.

It was all completely innocent according to representatives for Fisher, but the CEO who sent Brackpool to the US soon lost his job and the company that had once been a profitable if modest British greengrocery firm became the very poster company for 80s overexpansion. As Fisher reversed trajectory into a decade-long plummet toward bankruptcy, its share price reportedly dropping from roughly $2 to 4 cents, Brackpool turned west, toward California, lured by rumors of an ocean of untapped groundwater roughly 180 miles east of Los Angeles in California’s Mojave Desert. What one of his company's annual reports would soon describe as a mother lode of water lying in a 1,400-square-mile "horseshoe-shaped mountainous catchment area known as the Cadiz Valley" had already attracted speculators, but no one with Brackpool's brio and recklessness.

Sure enough, NASA satellite images did suggest that water briefly pooled in the Cadiz Valley during scant winter rains. Moreover, as was long understood by hydrologists and pretty much anyone familiar with the place, the ground underneath the Mojave can indeed be full of water. Only pressure from desert aquifers keeps the Mojave's seeps and springs flowing. And these startling fonts of water in such a dry place support such an astonishing array of plants and animals that in the early 1990s, almost simultaneously as Brackpool began buying acres in the Cadiz Valley, Senator Dianne Feinstein shepherded the California Desert Protection Act through Congress and to Bill Clinton’s desk. This act created the Mojave National Preserve, granting greater legal protection to the plants and animals very near Brackpool's horseshoe.

Wait a second. He was growing grapes for the prince?

Cadiz's water right was agricultural, so Brackpool’s young company began leasing a small patch of its holdings in the Mojave to citrus and table grape operation. Then, to the amazement of onlookers, it bought up the biggest ag operation in Riverside County. The New York Times described Cadiz's purchase of Sun World International farms and packing operations as a “mouse-swallowing-the-elephant sort of deal.”

The acquisition gave him such unlikely ag-cred that, in 1999, Brackpool was in talks with a Saudi royal, Alwaleed Bin Talal, about Cadiz running a grape farm in Egypt’s Nile delta. Behind lavish showmanship, however, nothing had changed from 1996, when, after the New York Times observed that Cadiz's farm side lost money, Brackpool replied, “The real long-term play is water."

Only the location of the Cadiz Valley, 40 miles from the Colorado River Aqueduct, made a "long play" plausible. To get his water to the canal operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and carrying Southern California's municipal water supply from the Colorado River to cities such as Los Angeles, Brackpool needed two key things: A pipeline to carry water from his wells and clearance to blend that water with the rest of the water in the aqueduct.

By 2000, environmental impact reviews were in process for what had evolved on the drawing board into plans for The Cadiz Valley Groundwater Storage Project. The pump-and-dump logic of getting water out of the ground and into the So Cal municipal supply was still the heart of the project, but the scope had come to include a savings bank side. Under this, Metropolitan could wheel in any surplus it might have from the Colorado, infiltrate it into Cadiz ground where it would be safe from evaporation, then pull it out when needed. This “aquifer storage and recovery” side was intensely fashionable at the time, and would give the project a high conservation-value sheen as it approached environmental review.

Because Cadiz’s pipeline would cross Department of Interior land, the project triggered not only state but also federal scrutiny. Metropolitan would be the lead agency for the state review, the Bureau of Land Management lead for the federal environmental impact statement. Federal participation meant Cadiz sustainability claims would be reviewed by the best desert hydrologists in the country, the US Geological Survey.

The local water might kill you and there's not enough of it.

Among the USGS observations about Cadiz’s storage and export project as proposed to Metropolitan: Mojave groundwater is prone to high levels of the carcinogen Chromium VI. Beyond a now "Erin Brockovich"-sized question suddenly hanging over the idea that a Cadiz Valley was a good place to store drinking water, the USGS suspected that it could take 15 times longer than Cadiz claimed for desert rains to replenish the groundwater the company pumped.

Pumping too much groundwater too fast might dry out the springs of what, since 1994, had become part of America's revered National Park system. The USGS proffered a pumping plan that would protect the Mojave National Preserve, but this time Metropolitan balked. What if damage from pumping was detected before it had even paid off the tens of millions it would cost to build Brackpool’s pipeline?

This is the juncture when friends with influence should have helped Keith Brackpool. Nobody greased more palms than Cadiz. Gray Davis received hundreds of thousands of dollars and rides in airplanes. Former speaker of the Assembly Antonio Villaraigosa got tens of thousands, and Cadiz never neglected the bottomless wants of San Bernardino County Supervisors. But when Cadiz needed their clout the most, there was the LA Times giving over its premier slot, the Sunday Report, to diagramming his generosity.

In 2002, Metropolitan left Cadiz at the altar.

Cadiz scrambled for new financing as Sun World went bankrupt. So much for growing grapes for the prince. As if to reassure shareholders, Cadiz filed a breach of promise suit against Metropolitan that would cost the water district’s ratepayers another $1 million. A pincer movement attempt to take over Met from within by seating an ally as general manager failed. The “long play” looked played out when up popped Susan Kennedy, a former Public Utilities Commissioner whom Cadiz had paid $10,000 a month for “consulting” the previous year.

Behold Arnold Schwarzenegger's new chief of staff.

With Kennedy’s help and ex-officio endorsements of the project from the governor, Cadiz stock roared back on the NASDAQ.

"I miss that English guy."
-- KPCC radio host Larry Mantle, after interviewing Keith Brackpool's replacement, lawyer Scott Slater, for the first time.

Bruised by yet more LA Times articles dwelling on his cash trails to politicians and even a guilty plea for security trading fraud back in London, Brackpool became a silent chairman. Late in 2008, a disarmingly boyish-looking water lawyer named Scott Slater stepped forward as the face of Cadiz 2.0.

The new, Slater-era strategy: don't argue with the USGS about safe yield estimates. Rather, lock them out. Then repeat unchallenged rent-a-science that Cadiz had paid private consultants to put on charts and graphs. This went, roughly, Cadiz pumps will not harm the basin. Nay, they’ll be good for it, yes good for it! Cadiz will capture water that would otherwise just evaporate!

Moreover, this time around, the company would be running a pipeline to the aqueduct along a railroad easement held by the Arizona & California Railroad and would not need a federal right of way, or to waste taxpayer money on a federal environmental review. Rather than frame it as Cadiz ducking the best expert scrutiny, the company emphasized efficiency. Think of all the money that Cadiz could save the taxpayer by eliminating US Geological Survey review! As for a new state environmental review, there was no getting around it. Cadiz needed a new lead public agency for to get its water into municipal infrastructure. Replacing the former “lead agency” Metropolitan would be tough. If the largest water wholesaler outside of Reclamation thought the project too expensive and fraught, who could replace it?

San Bernardino County was the obvious lead agency. It’s home to the Cadiz Valley and its supervisors were already well lubed with campaign donations by the company. A Cadiz press release even flirted with the notion. Only Slater knows if he passed on the County because he sensed a coming public corruption scandal that would embroil the county assessor and two supes and put a stink over all of California east of Interstate 5. For whatever reason, Slater kept looking.

Huntington Beach-based environment lawyer Debbie Cook thinks she knows how Cadiz ultimately lighted on Santa Margarita Water District, a south Orange County water company serving 150,000 people compared to Metropolitan’s 19 million. It was led by one of Slater’s cronies, she argued in a scathing Voice of OC commentary. With generous help from Slater’s team, the Santa Margarita Water District conducted a new environmental impact report, reviewed the report, then certified the report. And so it became lead agency of a water project 200 miles away with no other qualification to tackle a project of this scope other than its general manager knew Scott Slater. As icing, an Orange County judge affirmed the water district’s standing as lead agency in May.

Put my 401K on No Regrets in the third.

Slater and Cadiz were on a roll until April 2015, when a little known hedge fund blog called Seeking Alpha argued that federal review was inevitable and put a “strong sell” on Cadiz. So began a shareholder lawsuit against Cadiz. Call it ankle biting by a pseudonymous blogger, or insight by the rare, sharp financial analyst who does his or her homework. Either way, six months later, Seeking Alpha was proved right about one thing: The Bureau of Land Management wrote Cadiz rejecting the railroad gambit. The Santa Margarita self-certification under state review would not be enough. The project would have to undergo a federal review if Cadiz wanted to run a pipeline across federal land. Then, last February, the screws tightened yet again when the president declared yet more land around Cadiz to be part of a new Mojave Trails National Monument.

After issuing an indignant barrage of tweets condemning the BLM decision, then marshaling a stage army of outraged congressional reps, Slater is currently circling in protest mode. Time will tell if he can muster some kind of congressional exemption or if he’ll sue the federal government. Whatever he does, again it’s hail Mary time for Cadiz as Seeking Alpha doubled down on its junk rating, calling the company “worth $0 intrinsically.”

If Cadiz goes bankrupt, the shareholders already made poorer by repeated stock dilutions may be hit hard. (Cue to check where any mutual funds might have parked your 401K). But, as far as the directors stand, going bust could scarcely happen to a bunch of richer, better remunerated players. Seeking Alpha calculates that over the years more than $47 million of hundreds of millions raised for the company went to compensating insiders. Brackpool came out of the shadows after parlaying a 2009 appointment by Schwarzenegger to California Horse Racing Board into part ownership and a management post at Santa Anita Park in LA County. He’s now most often found in the sports pages commenting, say, on a recent redesign of the “Chandelier Room.”

One of the major companies buying up Cadiz debt is a Wall Street investment firm Water Asset Management. A ProPublica profile earlier this year found it systematically buying up agricultural water rights around the West to redirect the flows to cities. This is chastening for anyone who imagines that a Cadiz bankruptcy alone would protect the Mojave National Preserve from dewatering by the project, or keep the Cadiz Valley’s Chromium VI out of public drinking water.

“Let's say Cadiz does go bankrupt,” said one of three analysts interviewed on the condition of anonymity for this piece. “What’s to stop Water Asset Management from hiring Scott Slater? Or what's to stop President Trump from appointing Scott Slater Secretary of the Interior?”

Forget it, Jake. It’s Cadiz.

June 6, 2016

Infamous water heist -- and hubris -- reap poison whirlwind

Winds whip dust off the dry 110-square mile Owens Lake bed during a March 2010 storm. The lake, the site of Los Angeles’ infamous water grab at the turn of the 20th century, was home to the country’s worst particle air pollution until extensive control measures were installed. Photo courtesy of Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District.

Jeremy P. Jacobs

INYO COUNTY, Calif. -- America's first water war was fought here in the early 1900s, sparked by a Los Angeles sneak attack on the Owens River.

When it ended, the booming metropolis had slurped up the water, Owens Lake was a poisoned salt flat and Owens Valley residents were choking in thick clouds of toxic dust.

The Owens Lake story is a cautionary tale for the West, where cities, farms and endangered fish are battling over water supplies threatened by a warming climate and historic drought. There are at least a half-dozen salt lakes -- including Utah's iconic Great Salt Lake -- being strangled by arid conditions and rising demands for fresh water.

Scientists call the lakes "terminal" because they are found at the end of river systems, but the term could also be a diagnosis.

The lakes are dying.

"They are all threatened in one way or another," said David Herbst, a biologist with the University of California's Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory. "It's well taken that climate change and drought -- their coupling -- is going to have a large effect. But diversions for agriculture, for urban uses -- that's the reason that water is taken away."

What's left after the fresh water vanishes is deadly to people and wildlife. Rivers sweep into the lakes sodium and chloride and farm contaminants -- selenium, pesticides, mercury and arsenic. So when fresh water stops flowing, the existing water evaporates, leaving behind salty plains of toxic dust. For public health, the impacts are severe. Imagine dust bowls where you can't see 20 feet in front of you and need a respirator to breathe.

Some of these lakes, like Winnemucca in Nevada and Sevier in Utah, are already gone. Others are in grave danger.

The Great Salt Lake is fouling the air near Utah population centers, yet the state is weighing a new diversion project that would reduce freshwater flows, exposing more of its lake bed and likely increasing toxic dust, local experts say.

The Salton Sea, California's largest lake, will see water flows drop dramatically in the next year under a complicated state-backed agreement that transferred water from the farms near the lake to San Diego. Without dust controls, scientists say, a public health catastrophe looms for 600,000 people who live near the lake -- and for people as far away as Los Angeles or Phoenix who might find themselves in poison dust clouds.

Even Mono Lake, the focus of a landmark California Supreme Court case and one of the West's most protected lakes, appears headed toward crisis.

Michael Rosen of the U.S. Geological Survey said the destruction of the lakes was a blatant disregard of nature.

"Once the water gets there, it is no longer useful for humans," Rosen said. "So if we can divert the water before it becomes unusable, that's a beneficial thing. That's the way it was historically looked at."

Put another way, allowing water to flow into these lakes has not been considered "reasonable and beneficial," a mandate that appears in the state constitutions in the West. There is no law or clear regulatory framework to protect the lakes. Instead, there are a variety of competing interests, industries, agencies, municipalities and states all vying for their increasingly depleted inflows.

By the 1920s, Owens Lake -- which once sprawled over 110 square miles and teemed with wildlife -- had become a dangerous source of air pollution. Winds whipping through the valley at up to 60 miles an hour stirred up dense clouds of cancer-causing dust and salt.

Los Angeles has been forced to spend some $2 billion to engineer a dramatic pollution fix deemed by some here one of the great engineering fixes of the 21st century. The hardscrabble project is a patchwork of dust-smothering techniques, including gravel, flooded ponds and rows of planted vegetation that cover nearly 50 square miles -- an area more than twice the size of Manhattan.

"I think Owens Lake may someday be the ninth Wonder of the World," said Phillip Kiddoo, the head of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, which enforces federal air pollution regulations. "Everyone said it can't be done, it's too big a problem. But we're proving everyone wrong."

Owens Lake brings into sharp relief the ramifications of letting lakes go dry. It also underscores what it takes to fix a lake's air pollution problems, and managers from lakes around the world are looking to Owens Lake for solutions.

Without greater protections, Herbst said, these lakes are "screwed."


Owens Lake, a remnant of a much larger water body that formed during the last ice age, is nestled between the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo Mountains.

With peaks reaching more than 14,000 feet, the mountain ranges form the Owens Valley -- 75 miles long and 10 to 20 miles wide.

The lake is fed by the Owens River, the only major river east of the Sierra Nevada. The Owens begins near Yosemite in Mono County, then heads south more than 100 miles to the lake. In high-water years, the river carries hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or around enough for a family of four for a year in Los Angeles.

As the 20th century dawned, the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, DWP, led by Chief Engineer William Mulholland discovered the lake.

William Mulholland. - Wikipedia.
Mulholland -- a smart, brash and arrogant Irish immigrant -- had his eyes fixed on using that water to build an empire.

By 1904, DWP concluded it lacked enough water to serve a population that was doubling every four years and was gripped by drought.

What followed was a plot to pipe the Owens River to Los Angeles -- even though the two were separated by more than 200 miles, a mountain range and a desert.

Mulholland would not be deterred.

His department used tricks like flushing all the water from Los Angeles reservoirs into the ocean at night in order to make the drought appear more severe and garner support for a bond measure to fund the project. And his agents shielded their identities, posing as farmers looking to buy land.

The caper became the basis of Roman Polanski's celebrated 1974 film, "Chinatown," and was described in colorful detail in Marc Reisner's 1986 account of Western water management, "Cadillac Desert."

"Los Angeles employed chicanery, subterfuge, spies, bribery, a campaign of divide-and-conquer, and a strategy of lies to get the water it needed," Reisner wrote. "In the end, it mined the valley bone-dry, impoverishing it, while the water made a number of prominent Los Angeleans very, very rich. There are those who would argue that if all of this was legal, then something is the matter with the law."

Mulholland's department bought nearly the entire valley -- more than 300,000 acres -- for groundwater and water rights. By 1913, it had captured all the streams of the Owens River. And within a few years, Owens Lake had dried up.

The aqueduct and pipeline to transport the water to Los Angeles took six years to build across the Mojave Desert. At 223 miles, including more than 50 miles of tunnels, it was the world's longest aqueduct and the largest single water project on Earth.

Owens Valley farmers fought fiercely, using dynamite to blow up large swaths of Mulholland's aqueduct several times in the 1920s.

But by the 1930s, DWP owned about 95 percent of the farmland in the valley and 85 percent of town property.

And still Los Angeles needed more water. By 1970, a second aqueduct was constructed that the city used to begin pumping groundwater, which further dried up the land and water that fed Owens Lake.

Mulholland became a legend.

"[I]nstead of leading his people through the waters to the promised land, he would cleave the desert and lead the promised waters to them," Reisner wrote. "To a thirsty city, he was Moses."

Raining lawsuits

Ted Schade came to Owens Valley to clean up Mulholland's mess.

Schade (pronounced "shady"), a 58-year-old civil engineer with short gray hair, blue eyes and a love of motorcycles, grew up in Southern California and frequently camped in the eastern Sierra as a child.

After a trip in the Owens Valley with his wife, he picked up a local newspaper with a job ad seeking an engineer to study "fugitive dust."

"I thought fugitive dust was the dust that escaped convicts made," Schade joked.

The posting was the beginning of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District's attempt to tackle the nation's worst dust pollution. Since the lake bed dried up in the 1920s, nothing had been done to control salt and other coarse particles that are picked up by the valley's strong winds -- despite numerous complaints from locals suffering from respiratory ailments.

The tide began turning in Owens Valley's favor in the late 1970s when the military got involved, Schade said.

Just south of Owens Lake, the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake is the Navy's largest test facility for missiles and other weapons. Tests there require specialized cameras -- and clear views. So the Navy had grown weary of canceling tests in frequent dust storms.

And then Congress acted. In 1987 and 1990, lawmakers amended the Clean Air Act to address dust. The landmark 1990 amendments classified coarse particles as a hazardous air pollutant, specifically citing pollution at Owens Lake.

That, Schade said, "gave us our marching orders."

The air district prepared a state implementation plan for U.S. EPA that required DWP to control the dust by 2001.

DWP refused. The department is a formidable foe -- the nation's largest water and power utility, with 8,800 employees and serving more than 3.9 million people in an area of nearly 470 square miles. It sells $1.1 billion per year in water and another $3.3 billion in electricity.

The politically connected and well-heeled department flexed its legal muscle.

Schade's first break came because DWP was headed in the late 1990s by S. David Freeman, an engineer who helped establish EPA under President Nixon and led the Tennessee Valley Authority under President Carter and who remains generally held in high regard by the environmental community.

Freeman, Schade said, recognized DWP was responsible for the dust that in 1998 -- when EPA ordered the department to control the pollution -- was more than 100 times beyond the federal standard for coarse particulates.

So DWP agreed to invest in fixing the lake bed, but Freeman insisted the air district would not order how to do it, or mandate that huge swaths of the lake be cleaned up at once. It was hard to tell how much of the lake was emitting dust, he said, so by installing dust controls piece by piece, DWP could control the dust without having to cover the entire lake bed.

From the beginning, the air district believed it would take dust controls on about 45 square miles of the lake bed -- nearly half the lake bottom. But it gave DWP three options for dust control: apply water, gravel or plant vegetation. In 2001, the air district began flooding 10 square miles in the northeast part of the former lake.

The effort failed to bring the area into attainment with federal standards, so Schade ordered more gravel coverage. He then ordered more. And still more.

In 2011, the last additional requirement was ordered, but DWP balked and drew a line in the dust.

Then the lawsuits began.

"They pulled out all the stops," Schade said. "They sued us on everything they could sue us on."

At one point, there were at least a dozen lawsuits flying.

Burying the hatchet

How did an air district that operates with a skeleton staff working out of an abandoned motel afford to fight all the lawsuits and public relations assaults, while simultaneously monitoring one of the most complicated air pollution problems in the country?


The political pendulum had begun to swing away from DWP and toward the air cleanup.

In 1983, the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 270, which forced DWP to pay all "reasonable" costs for mitigating the dust at Owens Lake. The language was part of a compromise in which the air district could not require DWP to put water on the lake, affect its water rights or cut off all water flowing to Los Angeles.

As the district took more aggressive steps to tackle pollution -- there are now some 200 air monitors of some sort on the lake -- DWP had to foot the bill.

Then, in 1998, a court applied the same principle to attorneys' fees. The air district hired the best environmental lawyers in the state, and a court held that was "reasonable" under S.B. 270 because DWP also had a top-notch legal team.

So the water department was forced to fund both sides of its legal war.

"We just sent them the bill and they had to pay us," Schade said.

In 2013, DWP's will began to crack when Eric Garcetti (D) was elected Los Angeles mayor and Michael Feuer (D) was elected city attorney. Both had strong environmental credentials, and Garcetti appointed commissioners to DWP's board with environmental backgrounds, including former U.S. Rep. Mel Levine (D) and attorney William Funderburk. They all expressed an interest in getting past the contentious litigation.

The district reached a settlement with Schade in October 2014 that required dust controls on 48.6 square miles, an area that is largely already in place today. There is also another 10 percent of the area -- 4.8 square miles -- set aside as a contingency that the air district can order and DWP can't dispute.

Schade said it appears the 48.6 square miles is going to be enough to bring the lake into Clean Air Act attainment. The dust is more than 90 percent controlled, and DWP will continue to divert large amounts of water to Owens Valley in the future. It is planning to keep 158,400 acre-feet of Owens River water in the valley in the next year, including 65,000 acre-feet specifically for dust mitigation and another 8,000 acre-feet for recreation and wildlife.

Those commitments to the valley are locked into law. DWP will likely keep more water in the valley in the next year than it will export to Los Angeles, 114,000 acre-feet -- more than San Francisco uses in a year. During the height of the drought last year, all the water flowing down the aqueduct at one point was diverted to Owens Lake; none went on to Los Angeles.

Schade retired last year after the settlement was put into place.

"When the bad guys are vanquished, the sheriff gets on the train and rides out of town," Schade said, half joking.

Last November, Schade gathered with DWP and air district officials on the lake bed. They dug a hole and buried legal documents and mementos from the 25-year fight, including, of course, a hatchet.

For the birds

Spend some time at Owens Lake and you'll hear people talk about "unintended consequences."

Along with the original dust pollution, there were unexpected problems when DWP in 2001 began flooding miles of the lake bed in response to the air district's first mitigation order.

Owens Lake dust control areas.
DWP chose flooding because it was simple and the most cost-effective. It was a matter of building a large earthen berm and turning on the water, which the department already owned.

Almost immediately, the birds that had abandoned Owens Lake when it dried up returned. Because the lake bed itself is state-owned and protected by California's public trust laws for wildlife, DWP was required to safeguard birds landing in an enormous construction zone. Some of the birds were rare species, like the snowy plover.

"We've created all this habitat, and it was completely inadvertent," said Jeff Nordin, a DWP watershed resources supervisor, on a recent lake tour. "It was, 'Let's control dust the quickest and easiest way. Let's put water out there.'"

Nordin, 36, grew up in the Los Angeles area and now leads DWP's mitigation efforts from a biological and ecological perspective.

The Audubon Society also swooped in and began working with Nordin to create a master plan for how to turn the lake's mitigation tracts -- called "cells" or "dust control areas" -- into habitat for a variety of bird species.

"We didn't want this place to be paved over," Audubon's Andrea Jones said.

The process could take another 10 years, and DWP may spend another billion dollars on it. The goals are to conserve water, maintain dust control and build bird habitat. That includes increasing public access to the lake for bird-watchers and making the lake more visually appealing.

To that end, last month DWP unveiled a series of trails sought to entice visitors and, in particular, birders. The main attraction is a gazebo-type kiosk with wings reminiscent of a snowy plover's and landscape architecture meant to evoke the white caps of waves. It can be reached by turning off the highway visitors would traverse driving from Death Valley to Yosemite. DWP spent $4.6 million on the project.

Nordin said the goal is to gradually convert the dust control areas that don't provide good habitat into ones that attract birds. That includes varied ponds with islands and other vegetation.

Herbst, the University of California biologist, said the new plan provides an interesting opportunity.

Because of the control DWP has over these different cells -- their shape, salinity level, depth, etc. -- it can create a "mosaic of different habitats," he said. "All these different types of habitats for all different kinds of birds."

That can include deepwater ponds for some bird species, as well as shallow ponds for others that are ideal for growing the algae at the bottom of the ecosystem's food chain.

Herbst said he is skeptical that DWP can accomplish these goals while still cutting back on water use, as it plans to do, but the potential is there to create an important foraging ground for a wide variety of birds.

"It will just draw in birds because of the food if the salinity is at the right level," Herbst said.

'Scared to death'

But controversies aren't over. The Paiute tribe, whose reservation is just north of the lake, is critical of the trails and mitigation projects along the shoreline that are near ancient burial sites and other cultural artifacts.

Kathy Bancroft, 61, a Paiute community leader who has suffered breathing problems her entire life, said she is primarily concerned about preserving their sacred grounds around the lake.

She criticized DWP's projects for their "highly engineered" feel. Nothing looks natural or as it looked for her ancestors, she said, and she referred to each dust control area as another "Band-Aid." She said there are more natural ways to control dust.

"It's not like you would have to continually fill it up," she said. "You'd fill it up and then the vegetation would start growing on the sides. Then if you gradually drained it down, the vegetation would follow it. Things like that. But nobody thinks like that. They are just putting these Band-Aids on."

But DWP's Nordin said he's optimistic that since the settlement in 2014, the local animosity will shrivel. He said the master plan, which will take 10 years to implement, is a new phase for the lake.

"There's been a lot of ideas that DWP caused this mess, and there are some punitive aspects to it," Nordin said. "We are trying to get to where we are moving forward with all stakeholders collaboratively to meet all of their goals."

DWP will be working at Owens Lake in perpetuity, managing wildlife habitat and dust controls.

Officials overseeing water management in the West are looking to Owens Lake in anticipation of what they'll face in their own areas. Schade, the former air district control officer, however, warns that the Owens Lake cleanup was probably easier than others -- notably, the Salton Sea in Southern California near Palm Desert.

More people live near the Salton Sea, which is more than three times the size of Owens Lake -- nearly 350 square miles.

The Salton is already shrinking, and the amount of water reaching the lake will slow dramatically in the next year. By some estimates, 26,000 acres of the Salton Sea's lake bed will be exposed by 2020. At this point, there are only 2,000 acres of planned dust-control and habitat projects scheduled to be completed by that year.

Schade, who visited the Salton Sea while he was working on Owens Lake, sees trouble ahead.

"I took a look at it, and I said, 'Oh, my God.' Looking down at the soil between my feet, it looked exactly like Owens Lake. And I know what happened when Owens Lake disappeared," Schade said.

"I'm scared to death."