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Nevada and Eastern California
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Water Returns to Eastern Sierra's Owens River

"Let the water flow, baby," said Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa.   The Sierra Club and Lower Owens Valley Committee sucMayor.thumbsup-1ceed after two decade effort to rewater lower Owens River.  Check out our Owens River Photo Gallery or click the photograph at right.    Can you name the person to the right of Chapter activist Mike Prather?

There it Is, Take It Back
Owens River Flows Again after 90 Years

By Andrea Leigh and Mike Prather

On a crisp, clear November morning in 1913, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) Chief, William Mulholland, watched as millions of gallons of water that had been diverted from the Owens River came thundering down into the San Fernando Valley after a 233-mile downhill journey across the Mojave desert. "There it is, take it"� Mulholland shouted over the water's roar to 30,000 Angelenos witnessing the historic event.

Just over 90 years later, on a crisp, clear December 6 afternoon in 2006, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Inyo County Supervisor Susan Cash, standing at the Los Angeles Aqueduct Intake above Independence in the Owens Valley, together flipped a toggle that prompted a steel gate to open. The ceremonial action unleashed long-diverted water from the Owens River back into its historic river channel. Echoing Mulholland's sparse, yet memorable, declaration of 93 years earlier, top L.A. water official, David Nahai, said, "Our message of friendship and gratitude to you is 'there it is, take it back."

More than 200 people witnessing the event cheered and applauded, while Villaraigosa gave the thumbs up. A few moments earlier, he had addressed the crowd, "This is a new chapter in our relationship with the Owens Valley. We can't take back what happened here 90 years ago, but we can make it better," acknowledging that challenges remain to resolve the bitter feelings of residents who believe that L.A.'s thirst has taken a heavy toil on the environment.

Lower Owens River Project

After groundwater pumping by the Los Angeles DWP between 1970-1990 overstressed the Owens Valley ecosystem, the DWP agreed in 1991 to restore the 62 miles of the lower Owens River that had been diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The Lower Owens River Project (LORP) became the largest river restoration project in the United States, but has come at a slow, painstaking pace.

The LORP, intended as partial mitigation from Los Angeles groundwater pumping, had remained in dry dock for years. It took The Owens Valley Committee, the Sierra Club, and Inyo County to make the breakthrough it needed by taking the DWP to court. In June 2005, Inyo County Superior Court Judge Lee Cooper, unsympathetic to DWP delays, sided with the environmentalists and Inyo County. Cooper ordered the DWP to initiate flows or lose the use of the second Los Angeles Aqueduct—a segment completed in 1970 that increased Aqueduct flow by 50 percent. Additionally, Cooper ordered that the DWP temporarily reduce groundwater pumping and imposed fines of $5000-a-day until flows in the lower Owens River were brought up to the specified level.

Rich riparian habitat

Angeles Chapter activist, Al Sattler, made a special trip up to the Owens Valley to see for himself the newly unleashed river flow less than two weeks after the December 6 event. Mike Prather, a resident of Lone Pine and activist with the Owens Valley Committee, graciously acted as guide.

Not being sure just where the southernmost tip of the river would be, the two began hiking in the dry riverbed, passing miles of tumbleweeds. Eventually, they found the river frozen solid. It had been 12 degrees F in nearby Bishop the previous night.

After a brief celebratory pause, Prather and Sattler walked back to Prather's vehicle then drove a couple of miles farther north, where they were able to view the river flowing freely. There were a number of rabbitbrush plants in the stream, an indication that the water had been flowing for only a short time. Rabbitbrush does not normally grow in wet areas.

The modest flow that was released into the thirsty Owens River bed will eventually grow to a carefully controlled 40 cubic feet per second. Owens Valley residents anticipate with excitement the return of a rich, riparian habitat of willow and cottonwood, with its associated wildlife populations. Sacaton bunchgrass and salt grass alkaline meadows will become ground cover, wild roses and wild grapes will make up the under story. Desert olive and reeds will form a mid-story, while willow and cottonwood will create the upper canopy.

Each layer of riparian habitat will support its own wildlife communities. Neo-tropical songbirds (blue grosbeaks, orioles, and warblers), game birds (dove and quail), elk, bobcat, and swallowtail butterflies will benefit from such a large addition of habitat to the Owens Valley. Species that had disappeared will have the opportunity now to return.

New fencing is being constructed to protect the emerging riparian plant community along the banks of the river. Young willow and cottonwood need a helping hand to establish themselves from hungry cows that devour them like ice cream. Once the habitat is far enough along, limited grazing can take place that will not damage under story plants and soils and thus meet the wildlife goals of the LORP.

A mimicked snowmelt runoff flow (habitat flow), five times larger than the regular base flow of the river, will take place in late May or early June that is timed with the fuzzy seed production of willow and cottonwood. These seeds are viable only for a few days and must fly or float to a muddy surface for germination. This snowmelt habitat flow will also raise flows into side channels and benches and spread nutrients that will help widen the riparian habitat band. The wider the habitat the more diversity of species can be possible.

Renewed heritage

Owens Valley residents hope the revitalized river will boost the economies of the small Eastern Sierra towns of Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, and Laws. Visitors eager to fish can look forward to the return of bass, oatfish, bluegill, bullfrogs, and crawdads, with stretches of water that will again allow canoeing along a naturally slow, gentle gradient both activities prompting the return of a California heritage.

Permanent photo points for recording the changes in the river over time are in place. Three years of bird data along permanent transects have been collected and will continue. Vegetation and channel structure have been mapped. Local Owens Valley school science classes have been collecting data of all kinds along the river, and will continue to do so.

All of us can start to visit and watch the river and its life return to the Owens Valley. It is easily accessed on foot or horse and numerous dirt tracks allow vehicle touring. Do be cognizant of road conditions (sand, mud, and high centers) when driving. Pack a picnic, grab your camera and binoculars, and get out there.

Bylines: Andrea Leigh is on the editorial board of the Southern Sierran and has led several Los Angeles Aqueduct outings with the Wilderness Adventures Section. Mike Prather lives in Lone Pine and is an activist with the Toiyabe Chapter and Owens Valley Committee.

Service and Bird Watching at Owens Lake

The California/Nevada Regional Conservation Committee Desert Committee and Santa Lucia Chapter will be hosting a service trip to help remove invasive salt cedar on the wetlands along the shore of Owens Lake. After working several hours each day, there will be migratory birdwatching on the re-watered section of Owens Lake with resource specialist, Mike Prather, and as time permits, visits to the new Lone Pine Film History Museum and Manzanar National Historic Site. Carcamping will be at Diaz Lake, just south of Lone Pine, although motels are close-by. For more information or to sign-up, contact trip leaders Cal and Letty French, 14140 Chimney Rock, Paso Robles 93446, phone 805-239-7338, email (preferable) ccfrench@tcsn.net