Reviving the lower Owens River

Mercer 19321

Courtesy Eastern California Museum

Cottonwoods and Willow trees lined a healthy lower Owens River before LADWP started diverting water for Angelenos.

More than four years ago, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power turned back on a sort of faucet in the eastern Sierra. A court settlement compelled the utility to try and reverse history – to send water down the lower Owens River and begin to restore the lush landscape the area once offered.

A bearded guy snaps together a yellow kayak paddle. His old straw hat has a hole in it so big it's way beyond ventilation.

Mike Prather is an eastern Sierra conservationist, so he's traded some blows with the DWP. One long legal battle concerned L.A.'s pumping of groundwater 30 years ago. Settling that dispute sends 40 cubic feet a second down the river.

For Prather that past is prologue; he doesn't want to dwell on it. At least, not today.

"That's blood under the bridge; it made us all gray," says Prather. "And we finally got to where we sat down and try to see if we can create a future that isn't a perfect one but is a predictable one. And that's what got us here today."

"Here" is south of Lone Pine, a little way off Highway 395, down a lumpy road, near an oxbow bend – just where a kayak can slide effortlessly into the Owens River... once it’s inflated. (Which, by the way, is not effortless.)

"We've got a beautiful river in the middle of the desert, flanked by 14,000 foot mountains. You couldn't get a better environment in which to recreate," says Larry Freilich, a project manager for Inyo County's Water Department.

This day isn't all fun for him. Working for the county, he monitors how well the restoration serves local needs. "That said, it's a developing habitat. The water's only been in here for four years," he points out.

We paddle upstream with the project's consulting ecologist Mark Hill. He says that when the DWP returned water to the dried-up river, the flow downstream spread wide over the old channel.

"The water table built up quickly and now we have off river ponds all over the place which we had not anticipated. So now when you fly over this it's an oasis, it really is," he says, with more than a hint of pride. "A ribbon of green through this brown desert with potholes and little ponds off to the side all over the place."

Meadowlarks and mockingbirds love the extra wetlands. Bewick's wrens, song sparrows, marsh wrens – Mike Prather names them all, including the birds who thrive in thick stands of tule plants: rails. "That's the origin of the saying, 'skinny like a rail,'" he says. "They live right in the tules. They literally press together so they can go through narrow spots."

Prather might have laughed you off a dozen years ago if you’d told him that greenery would clog the river. Now he can imagine an even better future for the lower Owens – one that looks as it did a century ago, "where it was a mix of different habitats. Wetlands and meadows closed tree canopies, shrubby understory cattail bullrush tule-type things. That kind of mosaic that would give you the most diverse species for mammals, reptiles, insects and birds."

A tule-clogged river isn't easy for a kayaker. You can build up speed and power through, or grasp your way along, pulling from plant to plant. The old hands opt for the first approach. With a recorder in my hand, I opt for the second.

A wider river is slower and shallower – that gives tules an edge over willow trees and cottonwoods trying to come back. Consultant Mark Hill says he’s tried an oversized weed whacker on them.

That’s an expensive approach. But he notes that the DWP already sends a larger pulse of water down in late spring to mimic snowmelt. Increasing that flow could clear the channels as nature would.

"You deprive them of light by bringing up the water. Our answers lie in depth – increasing the depth to control tules; essentially, drown 'em," he says.

Not enough light at the base of the plant stymies photosynthesis. "You don't have to increase it by much," says Hill. "You know, another foot in here would provide more open water so that we can have boating."

Inyo County and the DWP are still weighing whether and how to adapt the roadmap to restoration. But Richard Cervantes, an Inyo County supervisor and avid outdoorsman, wants to do something. He believes a tule-choked Owens has blocked an economic boost from river tourism.

"I have my boat, and I was thinking of putting it on the bank and lighting it on fire as a statement," he says, laughing. "But I've been dissuaded from doing that, so, my wish is that it look more like a river."

To Cervantes, a river's for navigating, top to bottom. Inyo County is crafting a recreation plan now: laying out plans for boating, hiking and mountain biking along the lower Owens.

The county wants your opinions, too; they've set up a website to ask for them.

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