By Deb Murphy
Nearly 12 years have passed since then Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa performed the ceremonial re-watering of the Lower Owens River, declaring “This is a new chapter in our relationship with the Owens Valley.”
He may have been overly optimistic, but the Lower Owens River Project is still a work in progress with wins, loses and some unintended consequences.
The Water Commission hosted a tour last Wednesday, drawing roughly two dozen interested locals and out-of-towners to the southern portion of the most ambitious river restoration project in the States.
The tour started at Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s art installation, created by landscape architect Perry Cardoza, on Owens Lake. The project commemorates nearly 20 years of court orders and law suits focused on reducing dust emissions. The lake is a marvel of dust control science and a bi-annual resting spot for migratory birds.
The second stop: the proposed Owens River Water Trail, a project funded with a $500,000 River Parkways Grant from the California Natural Resources Agency two years ago. The end result, 6 miles of navigable river with input off the Narrow Gauge Road north of Lone Pine and take out at the pump back station, is dependent on a site agreement with LADWP. The department required, and paid for, environmental work before signing off on the agreement.
Inyo Water Department Mitigation Manager Larry Freilich explained the process of excavating portions of the river squeezed off by tulle growth. He pointed out the remains of tulles cut out of the channel by volunteer groups.
The California Boating and Waterways Commission has also committed funds for handi-capped access to the river trail.
The final stop was from a viewpoint above the islands, a 400-acre swath of tulles due east of the Alabama Gates. Water Commission Chair Mike Prather identified the one-time pasture as one of those unintended consequences of rewatering the Owens River. Hitting a nearly flat plain, the river divided into two channels then spread across the valley. Tulles invaded the grasslands and continue to head north. The demarcation between marsh and pasture is well-defined.
There had been hope high flows from the 2016-17 snowpack would have better defined the original channels. But that didn’t happen and no viable fix is on the horizon. Prather pointed out the area’s current eco-system has some value, just not the one the LORP anticipated.