Making Salt Grass Grow

Staff Finds Innovative Solution for Owens Lake Mitigation Project

By Jessica Johnson

Thanks to hard work, ingenuity, and a ‘can do’ attitude, LADWP met a tough deadline for successfully growing salt grass at Owens Lake—one of the approved methods for complying with stringent air quality requirements to combat dust and pollution at the long-dry lake.

LADWP’s Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Program is the largest dust control project in the country, successfully mitigating 99 percent of the dust from a 48.6 square-mile area of the exposed dry lake bed. Located roughly 220 miles from downtown Los Angeles, the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Project has been ongoing since the early 2000s, and addresses the environmental impact of the Los Angeles Aqueduct system while also serving to protect the Owens Lake ecosystem.

Recently, after completing construction for approximately 122 acres – almost 110 football fields of managed vegetation – LADWP teams were put to the test again.  With a completion date of December 2017, LADWP had until 2019 to pass stringent annual performance compliance for managed vegetation required by the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (Great Basin). Great Basin allows two years from the construction completion date to grow enough vegetation to cover a minimum of 37 percent of a dust control area.

After the first full day of work, LADWP staff was able to successfully harvest 33 rolls of sod. The daily average increased to over 50 for the entire duration of the project. Photo by Adam Solis

After one year of growing vegetation at Owens Lake, the LADWP team realized the soil was still too salty to establish vegetation and started looking into ways to better grow the plants.

“Growing a salt grass sod farm would take three to five years. After discussions with biologists, local farmers, salt grass experts, and sports turf specialists, we decided sod was going to be the only way we would meet our regulatory compliance deadline and avoid fines of up to roughly $1.4 million per year,” said Adam Solis, LADWP Construction Manager for the project.

To support a project of this size, LADWP construction managers allocated staff from construction yards in Bishop, Independence, Mojave, and Los Angeles.

Before any transplanting and growing took place, LADWP staff had to address several factors from reoccurring drainage issues, lack of irrigation in harvest sites to finding the right equipment that would work for the unique terrain they were dealing with.

To address the drainage issues, LADWP crews restored approximately 5,800 linear feet of ditches and installed approximately 2,170 linear feet of subsurface drains to accelerate getting the salts out of the soil. LADWP then imported 10,000 cubic feet (1,000 truckloads) of clean sand that was spread over portions of the area in order to provide a clean base for plants to grow.

Executing multifaceted enhancement projects is not a new undertaking for LADWP, but working under a tight deadline wasn’t easy. In part because of the team’s “can do” attitude and efforts across multiple construction yards and management teams, it was announced by Great Basin in April 2020 that LADWP officially passed the annual performance compliance assessment in all managed vegetation locations on Owens Lake.

LADWP staff planted over 200,000 plugs and plants in bare areas to accelerate vegetation growth. Photo by Adam Solis

“Our team accomplished the impossible and avoided annual violation fines and potentially litigation,” said Jaime Valenzuela, LADWP Manager of Owens Lake Capital Development and Implementation.

He offered a special thanks needs to the Maintenance & Construction Helpers, Equipment Operators, Power Shovel Operators, Aqueduct and Reservoir Keepers, Heavy Duty Equipment Mechanics, Heavy Duty Truck Operators, C&M Supervisors, Labor Supervisors/ Resident Farming Experts, Design Engineers, Watershed Resource Specialists, Environmental Specialists, Hydrographers, and Engineers.

“They got it done with minimal consultant support,” Valenzuela said. Once fully up and running, LADWP staff was able to harvest and install a quarter-acre per day on average, and an area larger than a football field in one week. Since completing the installation, LADWP staff has been monitoring the vegetation and expects to watch it grow throughout the year.