Throughout its history, the shoreline of Owens Lake has shifted with natural climatic changes. During wet climate periods in the Pleistocene, the lake overflowed and filled a string of lakes all the way to Death Valley. At one point 27,000 years ago, the shoreline of Owens Lake extended north of Independence. During dry cycles, the lake evaporated, sometimes completely. In place of water, salts and sediments were left behind. Surface water diversions from canals built in the late 1800s to irrigate agriculture in the Owens Valley substantially reduced surface water inflow to Owens Lake. Irrigation coupled with drought, dried the lake to about 5% of its historic volume occurred by 1906. The exposed playa, an area of flat dried-up land around the brine pool was once the largest source of dust in North America.
Since the early 2000s LADWP has implemented a dust control program across 48.6 square miles of the exposed playa, successfully reducing emissions by 99.3 percent.
Gifts of Rock and Water
People have long benefitted from the richness of the Owens Lake area. For at least 10,000 years, the Indigenous People of the Owens Valley have lived here and harvested resources, including glass-sharp obsidian for arrow points and spearheads. In the mid-1800s, other resources, like silver and grazing land, began attracting prospectors and settlers. Located high above the town of present-day Keeler, Cerro Gordo, or “fat hill,” yielded the largest silver deposit in California.
Traces of the Past
The region supports grazing land, mining for soda ash, trona, and borax. Weatherworn cattle chutes, abandoned mines, and factories stand as a testament to past human activity. Cerro Gordo remains a ghost town. In Keeler, the Carson and Colorado Railroad Depot and a talc mill still stand. Remnants of the Swansea Pier remain along the east shore. Charcoal kilns, cattle chutes, and a plate glass factory remain on the west shore. Amidst these relics, ranching and mining still take place today.