After nearly a century of dormancy, a 62-mile stretch of the Lower Owens River is flowing once again
Story and photos by Chuck Graham
The put-in was a gentle drop-off from a barren, sandy shoal, but as soon as my bow pierced the water the river came to life. A school of brown trout fanned out beneath me. Several western kingbirds perched on the impenetrable tule reeds fortifying the runnel’s banks, swayed in the warm breeze. A majestic great blue heron, standing motionless in the shallows, patiently foraged the river’s bounty.
However, this wasn’t an ordinary put-in. As I paddled this liquid artery that had been dormant since 1913, I gazed at a snow-capped Mount Whitney and the rest of the ominous Eastern Sierra towering to the west, while the desolate Inyo Mountains banked the river to the east.
The revival of the 62-mile Lower Owens River is the largest river restoration project in the history of the American West. It’s been a long time coming for residents of the Eastern Sierra. In fact, it’s been a lifetime. Ninety-eight years ago the river vanished from the Owens Valley and was diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, supplying water to the city of Los Angeles.
But in December 2006, under court order, snowmelt from the Sierra was redirected into the Lower Owens, restoring only 5 percent of the pre-aqueduct flow, but nonetheless breathing life back into the dusty channel. Inyo County offcials are hoping the river will eventually support a recreational industry for kayakers, anglers, hikers and bird watchers.
“It’s looking incredibly healthy,” said Mike Prather, outreach coordinator and former president of the Owens Valley Committee. “It looks like the river was shot in the arm with vitamins.”
If the restoration project is to prevail in the long run, much will depend on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power seeing eye-to-eye with Inyo County and environmentalists on the use of the river.
The Sierra Club’s successful lawsuit against the LADWP took 24 long years to attain a verdict, eventually leading to a judicial order that launched the 77,657-acre project as mediation for environmental damage from the LADWP illegally pumping groundwater from a second aqueduct located in the Owens Valley south of Olancha, diverting more water to thirsty Los Angeles.
“We’ve always been behind the project,” said Chris Plakos of the LADWP. “It was more of an implementation time-frame that got us into legal issues then it was to do or not to do the project. Of course we were going to do the project.”
An extended drought, though not a concern in this wet year, is also an issue which could over the long term thwart the project and divert the flow of 55,000 cubic feet annually back to LA.
“It will depend on the run-off amount,” continued Plakos. “The best way to help Mother Nature is to let the river take its course. You can’t mimic miles and miles of river. It’s just not possible.”
River ecologist Mark Hill says it could be 15 to 20 years before the river is fully restored. However, if the early returns are any indication, then the Lower Owens is on a steady track to recovery. During that time span Hill, will gauge the river’s vitality, everything from its 3,500 acres of wetlands, increased bows, water quality to its ever increasing inhabitants.
Hill, head scientist for Ecosystem Sciences of Boise, ID, has worked on a number of river restoration projects around the globe including the Nile, Mekong and Ganges, and in North America along the Columbia, Snake, Rogue, Yuba and American rivers. The Lower Owens though will be the first river restoration Hill has literally started from the ground up.
“This is a young river,” said Hill, as we paddled down from Independence. “We had to start from scratch, but right now our biggest challenge is changing the river flows.”
Because tule reeds, bulrushes and cattails are the first vegetation to spring to life out of a born-again river, they’ve thwarted access along the entire section of the runnel.
Although tule reeds act like a natural filtering and cleansing system, the growth of cottonwoods and willows will eventually grow above the dense reeds, creating a shady canopy that will stunt their growth. An increase in river flows, which Hill would like to see, would also help thin out the tules and in the process widen the river’s channels.
Even as Hill, his son Zach — a keen paddler and an environmental planner for the Lower Owens — and I eased down a five-mile section of the Lower Owens, we did come across many new, robust willow trees hugging the edge of the runnel, the beginnings of that much needed riparian canopy.
“Nature does a tremendous job of planting,” continued Hill, as we negotiated some tight, narrow turns in the tules. “The water has done all the heavy lifting.”
For decades dried up sage, tumbleweeds and cow manure choked the dusty, parched river bottom. Now with the Lower Owens being flooded each spring and transporting cottonwood and willow seeds, Hill and other ecologists will keep an eye out for a shady canopy of trees hovering above the mild current of a new river.
“The valley is gentle and the gradient is small, only 300 feet,” added Prather of the Owens Valley Committee. “The way to control cattails is speed and current, but with such a low gradient we need trees to grow and those will shade the tules.”
The replenished river is already attracting wildlife. Bobcats, minks, coyotes and ospreys have been sighted, and herds of elk are in the vicinity. As I followed the river’s easy flow, a great horned owl gazed back at me from its cottonwood perch and tree frogs hugged the thick stocks of tule reeds.
More than 400 bird species have been documented in the Owens Valley and the rejuvenated Lower Owens will become a major stopover for a bevy of migrating birds.
I also watched a pair of Owens Valley suckers, a native fish, swim beneath my kayak. Of all the species of wildlife, Hill said the fish have recovered the quickest in the river.
“The fishery is just about there already,” he said, as some large-mouth bass swam beneath our kayaks. “We’re creating an ecosystem through trial and error using passive techniques.”
Hill said the Lower Owens is free of any “active interventions.” There’s been no remodeling of channels or building up river banks lined with rocks and logs using heavy equipment. Instead implementing river flows at the right time while removing cattle grazing and other land management actions has been the key to success.
“This approach recognizes that nature will do a far superior job of restoring the river, trusting the ecological concept of self-organization, than we could achieve with expensive and risky interventions.”
Chuck Graham is a writer, photographer and kayak guide on California’s Central Coast.