Owens Dry Lake, California
Owens lake is an incredible example of how water projects in California have transformed the environment. It's also an example of what can happen when urban and rural interests compete for resources and rural interests loose badly. In 1913 Owens lake covered 108 square miles at an average depth of 23 to 50 feet. Small settlements ringed the lake shore serving the local mining and farming industries. Keeler was the largest of these with a population of several thousand in the late 1800s. Other settlements on Owens Lake were Cartago, Swansea, Dolomite, Bartlett and Carthage. These small settlements mostly served mines in the mountains above the lake but would have also served the needs of farmers in the Owens Valley.
In 1913 the Owens river was diverted by the Los Angles Department of Water and Power into Los Angles aqueduct taking away Owens Lakes' only source of water. All of the lakes' water eventually evaporated leaving a massive salt flat. The mines in the mountains above the lake closed after silver and lead was depleted. In the 1900s a small chemical industry began to spring up several places along the shore of the vanishing lake. Plants in Keeler, Bartlett and Cartago were processing salts and soda from the lake bed into useful products. When these plants closed in the 60s and 70s there were no longer any economic reasons for people to live along the former lake shore and many of the towns completely vanished. Keeler, population 66 and Cartago, population 92 are the only remaining inhabited towns on the lake shore.
The Owens Valley North of Owens lake is the deepest Valley in the United States. It's flanked on one side by fourteen thousand foot peaks of the Sierra Nevada and on the other side by the White and Inyo mountains. When the fierce winds blow into or out of the valley huge clouds of dust blow off the lake bed poisoning the surrounding communities and blotting out the view in what is one of the most scenic locations in California or anywhere. After many years and many lawsuits the Los Angles Department of Power and Water was forced to address the dust problems and have started work on a massive project involving returning small amounts of water to the lake, planting salt grass and ineffectually moving huge piles of salt around with heavy equipment.
Los Angles Department of Water and Power owns all of the Owens lake bed and most of the land around the Owens river and river bed. The Lake bed can be accessed via gravel roads on the weekends although signs warn that visitors to the lake bed must have "Safety training" and permission first. I assume this has something to do with LADWP not wanting tourists getting run over by the big trucks working on the dust project. I skipped the safety training and drove around for a while on a Sunday morning. I didn't see anyone else while I was there. It's interesting to observe how they're attempting to transform the vast lake bed.
There is a large, modern visitor center nearby at the intersection of 136 and 395 with restrooms and information. I'm guessing that this visitor center was built with money from LADPW in way of apology for destroying the lake. There are no developed parks along the former lake shore or specific points for public access that I know of but 136 and 395 follow the lake shore pretty closely and there are a few places to pull off the road. Mount Whitney is within sight and only a short distance away as are the spectacular rock formations of the Alabama Hills. It is an incredibly scenic area. The eastern lake shore is on the route from Whitney Portal road at the base of Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states to the lowest point in North America in Death Valley. The drive from Whitney to Bad Water is only 130 miles and one of the most amazing drives I've ever taken.
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