Another compelling reason not to breathe in L.A.
Piper (English/Univ. of Missouri) grew up 50 miles from Owens Lake, Calif., “currently the worst source of dust pollution in the nation.” The lake, on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, had ample water until the 1920s, when Los Angeles began to divert it to serve metropolitan needs 200 miles away, the subject of Roman Polanski’s classic film Chinatown. Piper examines how that film’s makers denatured it for fear of the city’s omnipotent utility department, which could not have found a more suitable source of water, politically speaking, since most of the residents of the Owens Lake area were poor Paiute Indians, who were easily displaced and powerless. The parched conditions unveiled fine dust particles that defy dust masks and grout, causing nightmarish autoimmune illnesses, asthma and other woes that are epidemic around the lake, affecting Anglos, Mexicans and Paiutes alike, to say nothing of the Japanese Americans interned during WWII at nearby Manzanar, locally famous as a place where “reduced visibility due to the dust led to the deaths of dozens of people in car crashes” and even prevented the military from tracking missiles fired during tests in the Mojave Desert. Challenged to undo some of the environmental damage it had wrought, L.A.’s Department of Water and Power proposed that Owens Lake be declared a “national ‘sacrifice area’ in order to overrule public trust law.” DWP was unsuccessful, so that parts of the lake are slowly being rehabilitated even as a similar disaster looms at the Salton Sea, closer still to the crowded metropolis. Throughout, Piper writes with prickly, if controlled, anger, much in the kindred spirit of Mark Davis’s City of Quartz, which bookends this neatly. The tone is fitting.
Readers who admire Davis’s work and that of the late Marc Reisner will find this fine entry in the library of apocalyptic Californiana of urgent interest.