Owens Lake Water Diversion for L.A. and Bristlecones

John Hekman has posted up a couple of comments on the possible effect of Owens Lake desiccation (due to diversion of Los Angeles water supply) on bristlecones. His notes and link are extremely interesting. The very unusual 20th century growth rate of the bristlecones was attributed by Graybill and Idso [1993] to CO2 fertilization. In our E&E article, we surveyed other possible non-climatic factors which had not been eliminated, ranging from nitrate and phosphate fertilization to 19th century sheep grazing – all of which had been connected in one way or another to specific bristlecone sites. John Hekman posted up comments #1 here and recently here on the desiccation of Owens Lake near the White Mountains, after the water supply was diverted to Los Angeles in 1913 (wasn’t this the context of the movie Chinatown?). The url states:

During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the lake fluctuated between about 7-15 m deep and had an area of about 280 km2, depending on drought conditions and irrigation diversions; the irrigation withdrawals were large enough to desiccate the lake eventually (St. Amand et al., 1986). Steamboats hauled ore across the lake from mines in the Inyo Range (fig. 1). Water was first diverted from the Owens River to the City of Los Angeles in 1913, and by 1926 Owens Lake was dry. The dry bed of Owens Lake has produced enormous amounts of windblown dust since the desiccation of the lake (fig. 2). The term "Keeler fog" (for the town on the east side of the lake, figs. 1 and 2b) was coined locally decades ago for the pervasive, unusually fine-grained, alkaline dust that infiltrates the smallest cracks and contaminates residences. The lake bed is probably the largest single source of PM10 dust (aerosol particles smaller than 10 microns in aerodynamic diameter) in the United States; by one estimate, 900,000-8,000,000 metric tons per year (Gill and Gillette, 1991). …. Marchand (1970) showed that as much as 50 % of the silt fraction of soils at high elevations in the White Mountains consisted of eolian dust, probably derived from Owens Valley and exposed sediment of Pleistocene Lake Owens over thousands of years, and modern storms originating on the Owens Lake playa have deposited measurable amounts of dust on the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains (Gill, 1996).

One of the unique features of bristlecones, which we mentioned but did elaborate on, is that the White Mountain bristlecones accounting for the extra growth tend to be located on dolomite substrate, which is very low in nutrients. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to suppose that the aeolian dust would have more nutrients than the dolomite soil and could easily affect growth rates on marginal bristlecone sites in the White Mountains and marginal (cousin) foxtail sites in the Sierra Nevadas.


  1. Martin Ringo
    Posted Aug 10, 2005 at 8:23 PM | Permalink

    Yes, the Owens Valley water hijack/diversion (depending on one’s point of view) was rationale for the land speculation in the movie Chinatown, which is better remembered for the slice in Jack Nicholson’s nose. The movie played the water development characters as Hollywood bad guys which is naturally cause to wonder. If you get interested, there is a fascinating, short history of the event by Abner Hoffman titled “Vision or Villainy.” Alas, Mr. Hoffman never got around to informing us on the causes of bristlecone growth rates.

    Marty Ringo

  2. Pat Boyle
    Posted Aug 15, 2005 at 11:27 AM | Permalink

    Also see Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. There is a wonderful PBS TV series based on the book too.
    It shows the townspeople coming out with their guns to save their water but they are met by the LA police who drain the lake and kill the valley.

  3. John Hekman
    Posted Aug 17, 2005 at 10:13 AM | Permalink

    Other than taking soil samples to test for 20th century fertilization, it might be possible to test the Owens Lake idea by separating out the bristlecone ring growth by distance from Owens Lake. Is the Graybill and Idso ring data in several groups that differ by location? Steve mentions in one of his posts that the data come from a few mountain sites in California and Nevada. “Distance from Owens Lake” might be a significant variable.

  4. TCO
    Posted Aug 17, 2005 at 12:50 PM | Permalink

    Agreed. Aside from the possible confounder, I would think that have a single location being so key to the overall curve shape, would push for someone to do another experimental study at another location. They could pick one that doesn’t have the dry lake thingie. Just pick one in another state.

  5. Steve Sadlov
    Posted Feb 7, 2006 at 9:35 PM | Permalink

    That old Owens lake dust has in it, in addition to salts and borates, a goodly amount of old detritus from the algae and brine shrimp that lived in it.

    Plus there are other sinks and lake beds all around there which were thought to be filled with water during the Pleistocene. So their dust has got to also have its fair share of old, anerobically entombed organics in it. Blow that stuff in the air and indeed fertilization can occur. There is also Valley Fever in there … not a fun thing!

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