Owens Lake is a mostly dry lake in the
Owens Valley on the eastern
side of the Sierra Nevada in Inyo County, California. It is about 5
miles (8.0 km) south of Lone Pine, California. Unlike most dry
lakes in the
Basin and Range Province
Basin and Range Province that have been dry for thousands
of years, Owens held significant water until 1913, when much of the
Owens River was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, causing Owens
Lake to desiccate by 1926. Today, some of the flow of the river has
been restored, and the lake now contains some water. Nevertheless, as
of 2013, it is the largest single source of dust pollution in the
2 Current conditions
3 Current management
5 Local industry
5.1 Cerro Gordo Mines
5.2 Other enterprises
Mineral extraction plants around the lake:
7 Public access
8 Surroundings from Earth orbit
9 See also
11 External links
Owens Lake was given that name by the explorer John C. Fremont, in
honor of one of his guides, Richard Owens.
Before the diversion of the Owens River,
Owens Lake was up to 12 miles
(19 km) long and 8 miles (13 km) wide, covering an area of
up to 108 square miles (280 km2). In the last few hundred years
the lake had an average depth of 23 to 50 feet (7.0 to 15.2 m),
and sometimes overflowed to the south after which the water would flow
into the Mojave Desert. In 1905, the lake's water was thought to be
Map showing the system of once-interconnected
Pleistocene lakes in
It is thought that in the late
Pleistocene about 11-12,000 years ago
Owens Lake was even larger, covering nearly 200 square miles
(520 km2) and reaching a depth of 200 feet (61 m). The
increased inflow from the Owens River, from melting glaciers of the
Ice Age Sierra Nevada, caused
Owens Lake to overflow south
through Rose Valley into another now-dry lakebed, China Lake, in the
Indian Wells Valley
Indian Wells Valley near Ridgecrest, California. After the glaciers
melted, the lake waters receded, and this accelerated with human
exploitation of the lake even before the
Los Angeles Aqueduct
Los Angeles Aqueduct was
built, due to
Owens Valley farmers who had already appropriated most
of the Owens River's tributaries' flow, causing the lake level to drop
slightly each year.
Starting in 1913, the river and streams that fed
Owens Lake were
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) into the
Los Angeles Aqueduct, and the lake level started to drop quickly.
As the lake dried, soda processing at nearby Keeler, CA switched from
relatively cheap chemical methods to more expensive physical ones. The
Natural Soda Products Company sued the city of Los Angeles and built a
new plant with a $15,000 settlement. A fire destroyed this plant
shortly after it was built but the company rebuilt it on the dry
lakebed in the 1920s.
During the unusually wet winter of 1937, LADWP diverted water from the
aqueduct into the lakebed, flooding the soda plant. Because of this,
the courts ordered the city to pay $154,000. After an unsuccessful
appeal attempt to the state supreme court in 1941, LADWP built the
Long Valley Dam, which impounded
Lake Crowley for flood control.
Owens Lake from the Horseshoe Meadows Road
The lake is currently a large salt flat whose surface is made of a
mixture of clay, sand, and a variety of minerals including halite,
burkeite, mirabilite, thenardite, and trona. In wet years, these
minerals form a chemical soup in the form of a small brine pond within
the dry lake. When conditions are right, bright pink halophilic
(salt-loving) archaea spread across the salty lakebed. Also, on
especially hot summer days when ground temperatures exceed 150° F
(66 °C), water is driven out of the hydrates on the lakebed
creating a muddy brine. More commonly, periodic winds stir up noxious
alkali dust storms that carry away as much as four million tons (3.6
million metric tons) of dust from the lakebed each year, causing
respiratory problems in nearby residents. The dust includes
carcinogens such as cadmium, nickel and arsenic.
Alkali dust storm at Owens Lake
The LADWP and the
California State Lands Commission own most of the
Owens Lake bed, though a few small parcels along the historic western
shoreline are privately owned. In 2004, the
of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) acquired a 218-acre (88 ha) parcel at
the foot of Owens Lake. Designated the Cartago Wildlife Area in 2007,
it is one of the few remaining spring and wetland areas on the shore
of Owens Lake. CDFW is using mitigation funds from
enhance habitat.
As part of an air quality mitigation settlement, LADWP is currently
shallow flooding 27 square miles (69.9 km2) of the salt pan to
try to help minimize alkali dust storms and further adverse health
effects. There is also about 3.5 square miles (9.1 km2) of
managed vegetation being used as a dust control measure. The
vegetation consists of saltgrass, which is a native perennial grass
highly tolerant of the salt and boron levels in the lake
sediments. Gravel covers are also used.
This astronaut photograph highlights the mostly dry bed of Owens Lake.
This once-blue saline lake was an important feeding and resting stop
for millions of waterfowl each year. During a visit to
Owens Lake in
Joseph Grinnell from the
Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley
reported “Great numbers of water birds are in sight along the lake
shore--avocets, phalaropes, ducks. Large flocks of shorebirds in
flight over the water in the distance, wheeling about show in mass,
now silvery now dark, against the gray-blue of the water. There must
be literally thousands of birds within sight of this one
Owens Lake is still recognized as an
Important Bird Area
Important Bird Area in California
by the National Audubon Society. At the shore, a chain of wetlands,
fed by springs and artesian wells, keep part of the former Owens Lake
ecosystem alive. Snowy plovers nest at Owens along with several
thousand snow geese and ducks. As a result of current dust mitigation
efforts, shallow flooding of the lakebed has created both shallow and
deeper (about 3 feet (0.9 m) deep) habitats on the lakebed.
This water, although seasonally applied, is helping to buoy the lake's
ecosystem causing hope in conservationists that an expanded shallow
flooding program could do even more. There are no serious plans,
however, to restore Owens to anything resembling a conventional
On April 19, 2008, the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society, Audubon
California, and the
Owens Valley Committee held the first lake-wide
survey of the bird populations of Owens Lake. Volunteers recorded a
total of 112 avian species and 45,650 individual birds — the highest
total number of birds ever officially recorded at Owens Lake.
Volunteers identified 15 species of waterfowl (ducks and geese) and 22
species of shorebirds. The highest totals for individuals of a species
California gulls (an inland nester at
Mono Lake and
elsewhere); 9,218 American avocets; 1,767 eared grebes; 13,826 peeps
or small sandpipers such as dunlin, western and least sandpipers; and
2,882 individual ducks.
Cerro Gordo Mines
Main article: Cerro Gordo Mines
The remains of the Cottonwood
The town of Cartago, below the Sierra Nevada near present-day Olancha,
California, was the western shipping port for the Cerro Gordo Mines
production and transported goods across
Owens Lake with the northern
ports of Swansea and Keeler directly below the mines. From Cartago a
barge-like vessel, the Bessie Brady, was launched in 1872, which cut
the three-day freight journey around the lake down to three hours.
Much of the freight it carried was silver and lead bullion from the
Cerro Gordo mines, which at their height were so productive that the
bars of the refined metals waited in large stacks before twenty-mule
team teamsters could haul it to Los Angeles. The trying three-week
(one way) journey improved after the formation of the Cerro Gordo
Freighting Company, run by ancestors of regional historian Remi Nadeau
who has written of this period.
The town of Keeler, below the
Inyo Mountains on the former north
shore, replaced Swansea as the shipping port for the mines after the
1872 Lone Pine earthquake. In the 1870s it had a population of 5,000
people as the center of trade for the Cerro Gordo mines.
Charcoal Kilns, traditional stone masonry 'beehive'
charcoal kilns, were built to transform wood from trees in Cottonwood
Canyon above the lake into charcoal, to feed the Cerro Gordo mines'
silver and lead smelters across the lake at Swansea. The ruins are
located on the southern side of the lakebed near Cartago. They were
similar to the nearby Panamint
Charcoal Kilns near Death Valley. The
kilns are identified as
California Historical Landmark #537.
In 1879 silver mining ended, but Keeler was saved when the Carson and
Colorado Railroad built narrow-gauge rail tracks to the town. It then
became a soda, salt, and marble shipping center until 1960. The rail
line had been sold to
Southern Pacific Railroad
Southern Pacific Railroad in 1900. Keeler's
current population is around 50 people and continues in decline.
In the 20th century the Clark Chemical Company operated on the
northwestern shore at Bartlett, with evaporation ponds for lake brine
and a plant to extract its chemicals.
Mineral extraction plants around the lake:
Inyo Development Company, 1887-1920
Natural Soda Products Company/Michigan Alkali Company/Wyandotte
Chemical Corporation, 1912-1953
California Alkali Company/Inyo Chemical Company, 1917-1932
Pacific Alkali/Columbia-Southern Chemical Corp./Pittsburgh Plate
Permanente Metals Corporation, 1947-1950
Morrison and Weatherly Chemical Corporation (M&W)/Lake Minerals
Corporation (LMC)/Cominco American Inc./
Owens Lake Soda Ash Company
(OLSAC)/U.S. Borax/Rio Tinto Minerals, 1962–present. Rio Tinto
Minerals has mineral lease renewals through 2048.
Numerous Western films have been shot by Owens Lake, including
Westward Ho! (1935) starring John Wayne, Maverick (1994) starring Mel
Riders of the Dawn
Riders of the Dawn (1937), Across the Plains (1939), Stage to
From Hell to Texas
From Hell to Texas (1958) and
Nevada Smith (1966).
The Cartago Wildlife Area continues to develop as a wildlife-viewing
area for the public. The site is open year-round for viewing numerous
bird species attracted to the ponds and wetlands as well as the ruins
of a historic soda ash plant from the
World War I
World War I era and the
Surroundings from Earth orbit
Here is a view of the Sierra Nevada mountains and surroundings from
Earth orbit, taken on the
STS-51-F mission in 1985.
Owens Lake is in
the upper right, with a reddish tint.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Owens Lake.
Owens River course
List of lakes in California
Los Angeles Aqueduct
California Water Wars
List of drying lakes
^ a b
U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Geological Survey (19 January 1981). "Feature Detail
Geographic Names Information System
Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). U.S.
Department of the Interior. Retrieved 2009-03-26.
^ a b Reheis, Marith C. (2006-04-11). "Owens (Dry) Lake, California: A
Human-Induced Dust Problem". Impacts of Climate Change and Land Use in
the Southwestern United States. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved
^ Siegler, Kirk (2013-03-11). "
Owens Valley Salty As Los Angeles Water
Battle Flows Into Court". NPR.
^ M. Morgan Estergreen (1962). Kit Carson: A Portrait in Courage.
University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 126–144.
^ Gilman, D. C.; Peck, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "Owens
New International Encyclopedia
New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd,
^ a b c d "Bledsoe Collection 1908-1933, Los Angeles Department of
Water and Power". first1= missing last1= in Authors list
^ Knudson, Tom (January 5, 2014). "Outrage in
Owens Valley a century
after L.A. began taking its water". Sacramento Bee. Retrieved 21
Owens Lake Valley PM10 Planning Area Screening Ecological Risk
Assessment of Proposed Dust Control Measures (PDF). 2007.
^ a b "
National Audubon Society
National Audubon Society -> Important Bird Areas -> Site
Profile". netapp.audubon.org. Retrieved 2015-07-24.
^ "Cartago Wildlife Area". www.wildlife.ca.gov. Retrieved
^ a b c Prather, Michael (Winter 2008). "
Owens Lake is coming back to
wildlife" (PDF). Rainshadow Newsletter. 4 (2).
Owens Valley Committee.
^ "History - Owens Valley,
California Air Actions Pacific Southwest
US EPA". www.epa.gov. Retrieved 2015-07-28.
^ Sahagun, Louis (November 14, 2014) "New dust-busting method ends
L.A.'s longtime feud with Owens Valley" Los Angeles Times
^ Parsons, Dana (March 24, 1988) "Digging Up a Mythtery : Under
the Floor of Owens Lake, a Fabled
Silver Cache Awaits Discovery, So
They Say" Los Angeles Times
California Historical Landmarks - Inyo County".
Parks Department. State of California. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
^ "Minerals and Mining". Carson & Colorado Railway. Archived from
the original on 2015-07-14.
^ "U.S. Borax Inc.
Owens Lake Operations".
Owens Lake Bed Master
^ Schneider, Jerry L. (2016). Western Filming Locations California
Book 6. CP Entertainment Books. Page 80. ISBN 9780692722947.
Sahagun, Louis. "Dammed by Past,
Owens River Flows Again". Los Angeles
Times. Archived from the original on December 8, 2006.
Sharp, Glazner (1997). Geology Underfoot in
Death Valley and Owens
Valley. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to
Owens Valley Committee: Owens Lake
Owens (Dry) Lake, California: A Human-Induced Dust Problem
Owens Lake Dust Bedevils Keeler
David Maisel's "The Lake Project"
"The Eternal Dustbowl" March 22, 2006 feature article in the LA Weekly
on the controversy surrounding the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and
Power's environmental mitigation efforts at Owens Lake, written by
Jeffrey Anderson, with photographs by Claudio Cambon.
Birds of the Owens Lake