Court dismisses DWP Dry Lake lawsuit, but DWP may fight back


California judge dismisses case regarding dust control on Owens Dry Lake

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California dismissed the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s high-profile lawsuit against the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District and other environmental agencies last week on May 2. 

The city’s federal court lawsuit, filed in Fresno last year, attempted to prevent Great Basin from issuing more dust control measures on Owens Lake. 

The LADWP, saying it had mitigated all dust impacts it created by diverting water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, sued Great Basin, claiming that the dust control measures being ordered were beyond their responsibility and are creating an unnecessary burden on LADWP rate payers.

Los Angeles City Council, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and city business groups supported the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit was opposed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Attorney General’s Office, which joined the district by filing legal papers to demonstrate that the city’s lawsuit lacked legal merit.

U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii agreed with the district and granted judgment against the city in a 21-page opinion.

According to Great Basin Air Pollution Control Officer Ted Schade, “The LADWP, seeking to avoid the law and its past promises, sued every federal, state, and local agency responsible for protecting air quality in California. [The] court decision is an important victory for every person in California who cares about clean air and a healthy environment.” 

Schade said the decision also “sends an important message to the LADWP ratepayers who are paying for this strategy of almost endless lawsuits.” 

Despite this week’s decision, the LADWP said it will continue to seek support from the court systems on its mission to reduce water use on the lake. 

“The federal court’s ruling was largely procedural and did not address the merits of LADWP’s core claim—that LADWP is being forced by local regulators to waste water and money while ignoring a viable alternative for dust control at Owens Lake,” said LADWP Communications Director Joseph M. Ramallo.

“We remain committed to exploring all available means for stopping the enormous waste of California’s scarce water supply and protecting consumers from the wasteful spending of Owens Valley regulators.” 

Ramallo also said the LADWP will continue to pursue litigation in state courts focused on “wasteful water practices.”

The dismissal of the federal lawsuit was the city’s third and most recent defeat in courts on this issue.

Last year, the city was forced to dismiss two state court lawsuits against the district and the California Air Resources Board. 

The city also suffered a setback before the state’s air resources board where it appealed responsibility for the air pollution from Owens Lake.

In 2012, the board reviewed more than 50 million data records from the dried lake bed and held a hearing to determine if additional dust controls are required. It determined that Owens Lake air pollution is directly linked to the city’s water diversion activities; it rejected all the city’s arguments; and it found the ordered air pollution control measures to be reasonable and legally required. 

The city has filed another lawsuit in state court to challenge the board’s decision.