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Only the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was deadlier in the state’s history. The scandalous story behind DWP’s early days is the basis for the classic 1974 film “Chinatown” starring Jack Nicholson.

But what about the DWP nowadays? With a $4.19 billion budget, and the department’s oft-times dubious history, there would seem to be no end of stories about the DWP.

DWP is spending hundreds of millions refilling Owens Lake to cut down on the dust that has plagued the region for decades making its air the worst in the nation. LA Weekly‘s Jeffrey Anderson, in late 2005, interviewed whistleblower DWP workers in the area and revealed that the $103 million Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Project had ballooned to $400 million. Now that figure is $500 million. The paper also revealed “contingency clauses that allow DWP contractors to revise projects by up to 25 percent of the price.”

Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are being used to remediate the lake by a water department ever thirstier for dwindling supplies in the area. When a DWP commissioner conceded to me recently that “we’re ripping them off,” it made even more sense to have a gander about around Lone Pine to flesh out but a few leads for one aspect of our larger investigation.Keeler California

Denise Anne and I hit pay water when we noticed a parking lot full of DWP vehicles at the Portal Motel Annex. We found more workers across the “lake” in a grim little town called Keeler, population 66, and interesting conversations ensued.

Lone Pine Lives

This was our first visit to Lone Pine, and we found the town and residents quite hospitable. A ranger named Steve at Diaz Lake exuded passion for the area and brimmed with excitement when we told him it was our first time. He gave us his only copy of a hand drawn map of the Alabama Hills, and when we apologized for asking so many questions, and he said, “Are you kidding? I love turning people on to adventure here. I live for this!”

Our campground host at the stunningly gorgeous Tuttlecreek Campground was also full of cheer. When we asked him for a battery jump, he laughed and pointed at Denise Anne, exclaiming that the car trouble “Must have been her fault – too much rock and roll!” We presume (and hope) he was referring to the AC/DC blasting out of our campsite the previous day.

But perhaps our best insight to the town of Lone Pine came from our experience in a hiking and rock-climbing gear store called, “Elevation.” Denise Anne was looking for hats and was thrilled with its eclectic selections. Gone was the rugged camper of the night before as she instantly morphed into an LA fashionista reminiscent of Dot, a prissy spoiled rich girl that hails from Brentwood. “This is like, hat heaven!” she cried, poring over winter caps of all colors and styles.

I chatted with a young man named Myles who worked at the store while she tried on hat after hat. He was a dedicated climber who made the rounds from his hometown in Carlsbad to Yosemite, Lone Pine, and Joshua Tree.

I asked Myles what he thought of Lone Pine and he answered with a story. He said that one day he returned from climbing to find all his gear had been stolen — items he’d collected over many years, and expensive ones at that. When word of his situation spread through the town, residents began giving him pieces of their own climbing equipment until he had more than he could use. When he told them he had enough, town folk just asked him to pass the gear on to someone else who needed it.

Myles also told us about a community garden he enjoyed, and a special historical dwelling up Tuttle Creek referred to as “the Ashram” that many feel has a strong spiritual presence. His affection for Lone Pine was clear, as was his commitment to his job. He was concerned that passersby might not know how extensive their merchandise was, and we brainstormed with him ways to improve the window display and help business. Denise Anne restrained herself to just two caps and vowed to come back for more.
Lone Pine

Unfortunately DWP actions of late may place the fate of Lone Pine and other Owens Valley businesses in jeopardy. Residents were angered earlier this year by the department’s scheme of quietly buying up 100 acres of rarely-for sale private property, which locals believe is needed to maintain their communities’ economic viability.

In an effort to secure permanent and exclusive water rights, DWP is purchasing prime river frontages and property along Highway 395, the main drag in Olancha, Lone Pine, Independence, and Big Pine, knocking down buildings and leaving empty lots. Residents contend that the mega-utility should compensate for the loss of private land by releasing an equal amount of its property elsewhere. In fact in 1997 there was an agreement the department to relinquish 75 acres, but it hasn’t helped much since DWP sets bids far above market value.

But not all DWP news is bad news, even with intersections collapsing from the department’s broken water mains across Los Angeles and the Valley, including one that nearly swallowed a fire engine on Coldwater Canyon. One idea that seems to make sense is to cover parts of Owens Lake with solar panels to cut dust, generate power, and reduce water use remediating the lake.

Dust or no dust it was hard to tear ourselves away from Lone Pine, but Darkness was calling. We bid farewell to the friendly town and snow-capped peaks of Mount Whitney and headed East over the Inyo Mountains, through the Panamint Valley, and over the Panamint range into the land that we love.

Orders from Above

It was evening when we arrived in the park, and the desert sky was filled with a stunning array of celestial bodies that always take us by surprise. With the star field’s endless expanse halted only by the silhouettes of the surrounding mountain ranges, the sensation of really being on a planet takes hold. Last year a ranger at the park’s visitor center taught us how to identify the International Space Station, and we were able to spot it passing over our heads during an evening hike in the Mesquite Sand Dunes.

Denise Anne is always searching the skies for objects that seem a little…unusual, especially in Death Valley. While it’s fairly common to see fighter jets from the nearby China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, she’s not-so-secretly hoping to see something else. Experimental aircraft from Nellis Air Force Base and Area 51, a mere hundred miles away, perhaps…or friendly visitors from another planet.

When I hear the staccato cadence of D-bot’s voice, I know one has arrived.

“Do not be afraid, Earth Man,” she uttered.D-bot

I turned to see an android with a skin-tight metallic space uniform, short spiky silvery hair, and an asteroid that was out of this world.

Afraid? No, not exactly. I’d seen her kind before. My last close encounter with this alluring alien took place in the Trona Pinnacles, a bizarre landscape in the dry Searles Lake basin consisting of over 500 tufa spires. The area has served as a film location for many sci-fi movies, though the town of Trona is arguably stranger – but that’s another story.

D-bot’s interest in the area may have more to do with the fact Searles Dry Lake contains an astonishing 98 of the 104 known naturally occurring chemical elements, which she needs to buff that metallic skin to a blinding sheen. She also uses the area for target practice, as the tufa spires remind her of former enemies she’s blasted with her mighty laser-gun.

I was trying to talk her out of vaporizing an off-roader that annoyed her when an F-16 swooped down and showed off for us. I was afraid she’d take aim at it but she just laughed in that unsettling mechanical way.

“Your military poses no threat to us. But its activities may be toxic to your people and planet. You should inform Earthlings of the danger.”

I had my orders, and as I have written before (see Sputnikfest), D-bot gets what she wants.

Standing next to her now at the Mesquite Springs campground, I sensed she had something specific in mind. The campground is one of the park’s most remote, located in the northeastern park near the Cottonwood Mountains. A bluff overlooking the dry riverbed, Death Valley Creek, looked more like an airstrip in the blue moonlight, and I recalled that the nearby Ubehebe volcanic crater always seemed more like a high impact zone to me, from a meteor or …

“No, we did not land here or at Ubehebe” D-bot said crackling with electricity. “That is from a steam eruption 2,000 years ago. But we are concerned with other craters, ones that your people have made.” Pointing east, D-bot told me that radioactive contamination from the Nevada Test site, where at least 928 atomic explosions occurred, may be traveling toward populated areas faster than previously thought possible.

D-bot also reminded me that the ancient aquifer used to water Death Valley is still threatened by the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository located east of Death Valley in Nevada. That $100 billion project to store the nation’s most radioactive nuclear waste, first ordered by President George W. Bush in 2002, was taken off the table by the Obama Administration this year. The Yucca Mountain site “no longer was viewed as an option for storing reactor waste,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a Senate hearing March 5, 2009.

That doesn’t mean the project’s dead, however, as it is still heavily funded and will certainly outlive the current administration. With nuclear regulatory applications pending, the soonest construction could start is 2013. Congress cut the project’s 2008 budget from $494 million to $390 million, continuing a downward trend. This money could keep Yucca Mountain on schedule to accept nuclear reactor waste should the political climate change.Yucca Mountain-Death Valley groundwater map

That would be bad news for the 140-mile long Death Valley if Yucca Mountain ever leaks radioactivity which numerous experts have contended it would. According to a 1998 report obtained by EnviroReporter.com called “Regional groundwater modeling of the Yucca Mountain site using analytic elements,” by the departments of civil engineering at the universities of Nebraska and Minnesota, Death Valley’s pristine fresh water supply would be threatened.

Scientists found that the proposed nuclear repository had a groundwater range over 300 miles in size with the aquifer being up to 3 miles thick. “Water that flows under Yucca Mountain discharges at Death Valley,” the report says, “And recharge fluxes for the Death Valley regional groundwater flow system.”

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