Another view of the Owens River

By Deb Murphy

Harry Williams looks at the Owens River with different eyes.

Harry Williams

Harry Williams

Nobody ever told his people that “man has dominion over all the earth.” The relationship between Native Americans and the world they live in is familial. “If we don’t take care of Mother Earth,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday, “she won’t take care of you.”

As a board member on the Owens Valley Committee, Williams had just gotten out of a meeting with the Lower Owens River Project Memorandum of Understanding partners. The meeting was called to test the waters on changing the base flows and the pump-back station capacity.

The 40 cubic feet per second base flow and 50 cfs limit at the station were codified in the MOU requiring unanimous agreement from all five partners. At last month’s LORP Annual Report, the project consultants, Ecosystem Sciences, repeated their recommendations that both aspects of the agreement be changed for a three-year period to improve water quality, encourage tree growth and control the invasive tule growth.

At that January meeting, other MOU partners seemed open to changes in the restrictions. The OVC board has yet to vote. “They’re going to play the blame game,” said Williams. “That doesn’t bother me. I’ll vote for what I think is right.”

The consultants’ perspective is that the restrictions are negatively impacting the goals of the project; something different should be put in place to get the river back on track. Williams has a different perspective. “It’s a 62-mile long river,” he said. “It’s not just the area below the Alabama Gates (where most of the issues are apparent). It’s a mitigation project (for Los Angeles Department of Water and Power groundwater pumping). We shouldn’t complain about the tules. There are bugs, frogs, other wildlife there.”

According to Williams, the project was to be monitored for its first 15 years; the river was re-watered seven years ago, half way through that time period. He wants to give the Owens a chance to repair itself. “Nature doesn’t go that fast,” he said. “Woody recruitment doesn’t just happen. The river banks haven’t stabilized yet.”

Much of the progress has been stymied by three years’ of drought with little or no seasonal habitat flows initiated to help flush out the muck on the river bottom and scour the banks of tules.

The biggest sticking point is the increased capacity at the pump-back station. The consultants’ justification is fairly simple. Excess water beyond the 50 cfs capacity goes onto the Owens Delta at a time when it doesn’t need the water. “They call it a waste,” Williams said. “It’s not a waste, it’s creating habitat.”

For LADWP, the increased pumping capacity and a base flow that mirrors natural flows will allow the project to be water neutral. The same amount of water that has gone into the river at the intake below Tinemaha in the past will course down the Owens if the changes are made.

For Williams, the issue is a matter of trust. “They (LADWP) will get their foot in the door,” he said of increasing the pump capacity. Williams, like most of the OVC members, have traveled the long path of the LADWP’s second aqueduct and groundwater pumping all leading to the battles over the Long Term Water Agreement. For more recent or less invested Owens Valley residents who may view the issues from a spectators’ point of view, this is personal. “This isn’t as simple as it looks,” Williams said. “We’re not obstructing (the LORP’s progress); we’re trying to protect it.”

Williams wants to look at the language, the wording submitted to the courts to remove the restrictions for the next three years, before he can vote.

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12 Responses to Another view of the Owens River

  1. Philip Anaya February 24, 2015 at 7:57 am #

    Nothing like a 4 year drought to restrict the amount of water being exported to Los Angeles from the Owens Valley. There are no words, no action, no stipulation or order from any Court that could have limit LADWP getting less than 20% of the mean average flows of water resource into the Aqueduct to a thristy LA. Mother Nature rules .
    That being said, the LTWA is an amazing document . Did it not also come from a period of time when there had been a multi year drought and the City’s responce to that drought was increased pumping of the Valley Floor ? The damage to the environment and the response of folks in the County, in the enviromental community, in the City of Los Angeles led to the LTWA and there continues a mixed responce to that Agreement. LADWP doesn’t like it, doesn’t adhere to it and the environmental community doesn’t think it’s strong enough. It is however the only thing we got and it is more than a document, more than an agreement. It also represents an evolution of hope and consciousness that needs to evolve to benefit the environment here in the Eastern Sierra and here on this Earth.
    It is always benefical to have a communication and a resulting resolution to differences. The DWP is made up of human beings. They are our neighbors, some are friends and family and there is no excuse for any asocial dynamic between folks. I hold myself and everyone I encounter to be a human being to one another and folks in the DWP and in the OVC and I am a “activist member” , don’t get a pass . The power of the truth , the facts of every issue are usally apparent and with the LTWA are often lost in the rhetoric, too often ignored , responces delayed all in some kind of knowledgeable double speak egocentric banter from both sides at the expense of the environment and in this case the future of the Lower Owens River.
    The apparent truth is that we can do better with the LORP. All of these discussions speak of the lack of people , human beings, to recognise and accept those facts. The elephant in the room are the effects of the dysfunctional evolved history of the LADWP in the Owens Valley and dysfunctional rhetoric will only perpetrate that history. The time of she said , he said needs to end, needs to be diminshed , trust needs to be nutured if LADWP will ever evolve into a more responbile steward of the environment. The forces of nature, of evolution even through periods of disruption is the adaption to the environment, to mother nature, to Mother Earth. Harry Williams has it correct when he says that “if we don’t take care of Mother Earth , she won’t take care of you”.
    So the question remains , what assuances, what management practices are needed to take care of the LORP, for the Owens Valley , “for the river that runs through it” .

  2. Ben Holgate February 19, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

    LADWP is currently out of compliance with the LTWA. Until they are compliant with current agreement with Inyo County there shouldn’t be any changes.

    It would require at least another 100cfs on average for the LORP to “mimick” nature. People are right to be mistrustful of this proposal for deck chair re-arranging in order to gain pumpback capacity.

    Find another consultant.

    • RandyKeller February 20, 2015 at 8:56 am #

      I don’t think anyone is doing DWP a favor by allowing increased pumping capacity so they will change the flow regime in the LORP. They put the agreed upon amount of water down the river now. There is no obligation on them to put more water down the river. Allowing more capacity in the pumps allows them to use the same amount of water more beneficially. Or with larger pumps, to increase the total amount of water down the river since they could recapture it for export. Why punish the river because you distrust DWP?

      • Ben Holgate February 21, 2015 at 8:40 am #

        Randy, it is not a river. It is a mitigation project that is also a meek simulation of a river. Anyone who walks the LORP can see that clearly. The point of the project, as with all the mitigation measures in the LTWA, is the value of every actual drop of water left on the valley floor.

        Demanding accountability from LADWP is not punitive it is a completely neutral position. As a County we have failed to hold LADWP accountable but that doesn’t mean we haven’t kept track of their failings and I’ll bring that up whenever they want to drill new wells or install more pumps “for our own good” or any other reason. That is actually the responsibility of all Inyo residents.

        • Desert Tortoise February 21, 2015 at 11:49 am #

          Ben, as a charter city LADWP is not accountable to any county on LA owned land. Read Article 11 of our state constitution. LAs laws supercede those of any other state or local entity in California. That is what it means to be a charter city. Only a court can tell LA what to do or not to do, and even then the legal precedent has been the matter in question has to have statewide significance, at least in the state courts. Federal courts can tell states and charter cities what to do and is why every action taken against LADWP has required a court case. But in a general sense, under Article 11 charter cities, within their city limits AND on land they own outside their city limits are not bound by any laws but their own. They write their own book.

          • Wayne February 22, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

            That is not true. There are State and County Health and Safety, Criminal, and some Civil laws that the County can (and indeed some such as water borne or insect borne pathogen borne prevention must) enforce.

        • RandyKeller February 22, 2015 at 10:39 am #

          Yea Ben, I agree. The lower Owens is no longer a river and L.A. should be held accountable for their promises. But the lower Owens was once a river and L.A. has done what it agreed to do regarding the LORP, after being forced to.

          So where do we go from here? Leave the lower Owens as a tule clogged canal? Wait for L.A. to supply more water than they are required to at the expense of water to their constituents. The first just seems wrong if we can do better. The second is not realistic. And we can do better. The main barrier to getting more water down the lower Owens is that L.A. can’t recover it for export. Although I don’ necessarily agree, I suspect L.A. would consider it profoundly irresponsible to take water from the canal to put down the river and into the delta, especially in an age of droughts. If they had larger pumps at the pumpback station, the lower river could get much more water and L.A. would take the same amount out of the valley as they do now. At the very least, the lower Owens could behave like a smaller river again rather than a meandering canal, and at little risk of cheating.

          In fact, setting aside cost and perhaps practicality, wouldn’t the best solution giving our reality be to have pumps and siphons at the pumpback station that could return the entire flow of the Owens river to the aqueduct. Let the entire river flow for 40 additional miles. Then the LORP would be a real river and L.A. would get their water. As close as we could get to that “ideal” the better as far as I am concerned. So I would argue for massive pumps at the pumpback station, big enough to handle the flow of a small river. Perhaps we could help right an ongoing wrong. I think that is the potential benefit of the LORP and one that is entirely possible.

          • Ben Holgate February 22, 2015 at 4:39 pm #

            Where do we go from here?

            First, how about having our plan A and plan B strategy with regard to relationship with LADWP something other than polite society and afternoon coffee at the country club? That’s not how Inyo’s Board, DA, County Council, Water Commission and environmental activists won the agreement. Those people had a long term strategy and it’s high time elected leadership and staff had a good one for its enforcement.

            Tom Bradley didn’t sign the agreement out of the kindness of his heart. The City lost and lost again and they were made to sign. That should be instructive.

            I don’t understand your comment about cheating. Was it cheating when our District Attorney insisted that LA be accountable for environmental destruction in Inyo? Sorry, that was rhetorical. It wasn’t bad form then and it’s still not.

          • Ben Holgate February 22, 2015 at 5:04 pm #

            I want to point out that the current water department staff have recently had considerable success enforcing the LTWA and holding the City accountable. They need real support from many elected offcials in order to fully enforce the agreement.

  3. RandyKeller February 19, 2015 at 10:42 am #

    Seems to me that allowing the river to more closely mimic nature is a good in and of itself. The LORP is a chance to exercise dominion over nature in a more sensitive way. Trust between all the parties in the valley would be nice, but is not necessary to do the right thing. Increasing the capacity of the pumpback station is a necessary condition of allowing a more natural flow to the river (realistically). The water agreement would not allow DWP to add new export wells to take advantage of the new capacity without extensive review by the county and the public and a demonstration that adding export would do no harm. Such a proposal would necessarily be transparent and unlikely to be approved. It can’t just happen because DWP might want it to. We should not let distrust get in the way of doing right.

  4. Alice Chan February 19, 2015 at 8:09 am #

    Thanks for this great interview with Harry Williams. And thank you, Philip, for your thoughtful comment.

    I was struck by one point in your conclusion, Philip, that “there will be changes and trust will one day blossom because we are all human being(s)…”

    Problem is, LADWP is *not* a human being.

  5. Philip Anaya February 18, 2015 at 8:29 pm #

    It was a long time coming the restablishment of flows in the lower Owens River . For the first seven years of these restablished flows the River has not benefited from flows that mimick other streams in the Sierras. A hydrograph of the flows in the Kern River for instance has some high peaks or spikes from the annual spring runoff. The Lower Owens however has not been benefiting from the purge that reclaims the high water marks along it’s banks . The woody development of a river has to do with the deposit of seeds at that those high water events. If they are not deposited above the normal flows then they are washed along and never get a chance to grow. The one goal of this LORP should be simply to provide for a hydrograph that is as natural as we can provide . If the trees develop then those tree dwelling species of birds will have habitat and furry critters will have cover and nature will thrive.
    There is a serious considered lack of trust between the people of the Owens Valley and the DWP and even less trust between the OVC and the DWP. After all Mark Bagley and the OVC had to litigate to have a LORP in the first place. Considering allowing the DWP a bigger pump or a bigger pipe does not make a lot of sense on the surface of any decision .So with a LORP Agreement there must be assurances that the LORP will NOT become a conveyance for the extraction of waters from any new production wells along the banks of the LORP . Only with these assuances should a Judge allow the MOU parties to modify even temporalily the stipulations and orders that currently provide for the limits of the pump back station and the requirements of the base flows . The LORP can benefit from a proposal that improves the river dynamics, improves the O2 levels, the woody development and habitat enhancements if that proposal contains assurances of a plan that is intended solely for the health of the River and not some hidden plan to take extra water from the Owens Valley for Los Angeles .
    Recently there has been in my opinion some small steps to create trust in these water wars with the DWP . The drought has had it’s effects on everyone . DWP is desperate for resource and yet the DWP hard line strongly associated with the Owens Lake dust mitigation has somewhat diminished . Blackrock has been settled . The Bishop Creek issues are certainly not over but there has been small bits of progress and some rotating flow in the Ditches . Has there been enough progress . Absolutely not, but agreements can give birth to other agreements and there are many opportunities for the DWP to do it’s part . Trust has to evolve and there is a need of courage and committment for trust to grow . An agreement on the LORP is just another small step in the development of trust with these water and power issues . I ‘d sure like to hear about some progress with the Ranchers Leases, Green Book revisions and so on.
    Being a newcomer to these issues, as compared to Harry who I value and respect, should not disqualify an opinion even it it only makes half sense . I know less than many about the Inyo, about having family, having ancestors who have resided in this place for generations. However one thing that I do believe so hard that I know it is correct is that the past history of the DWP in the Owens Valley can not continue forever. There will be changes and trust will one day blossom because we are all human being and that’s what decent human beings do . They trust one another, they help each other , they love their mothers, fathers ,sisters and brothers and like Harry and I, also decent men, we love our Mother Earth . There are blessings from Mother Earth in this Owens Valley every day and I have hope that humans crafting a LORP agreement can be such a blessing .


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