In recent days, the head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency strolled along the Los Angeles River with Mayor Eric Garcetti. The City wants money from the EPA for a $1 billion project to restore and landscape the LA River. The elaborate project once more makes Inyo County residents feel like the forgotten step child. Re-watering of the Lower Owens River was hard fought through the courts, and the river remains mostly unusable.

Boating through the tules.  Photo by Frank Colver

Boating through the tules. Photo by Frank Colver

With as much as $1 billion in federal and municipal money, the City of Los Angeles hopes to restore an eleven-mile stretch of the LA River with elaborate landscaping, marshland habitat, bike and walking trails. It’s still in planning with some local opposition to the cost. Tonya Durrell of LA River Restoration said that plans do not “anticipate that our project will have a significant reliance on imported water.” So, it’s unclear exactly how much Eastern Sierra water will help the LA River Project. Meanwhile, at the source of water for LA, the Owens Valley struggles to make the Lower Owens River navigable and recreation-friendly with marginal success. Los Angeles has offered no financial help.

As river awareness grows among LA people, Inyo County works on a Lower Owens River Recreation Use Plan which was approved by the Board of Supervisors and LADWP. The next step is a final design and environmental review. The main feature is what’s called a paddle trail – a clear area of the river for non-motorized boating or kayaking. Larry Freilich, Inyo Water Department Mitigation Manager, said the Lower Owens Recreation Plan has drawn a lot of interest. Businesses see it as a major way to attract more customers. Outdoors people love the idea of boating and walking along the Owens. So far, a lack of funds and plenty of tules stand in the way.

Freilich said it’s a challenge to clear a desired sixteen miles – two, eight mile stretches – of the river. Tules choke off many areas. But remarkably, Freilich and the river itself have attracted a growing group of volunteers willing to get out there with hand tools and remove the bulrushes. In August, the group cleared 100 yards in a day. Freilich called it “rewarding work in a beautiful environment. It’s given us real hope,” he said. Volunteers cleared about a mile and a third in six days of work from Lone Pine to Keeler Bridge.

While LA pushes for a billion-dollar re-make of its river, even the most modest money is an issue for the river LA dried up years ago. Right now, the funds are not even available to finish the planning and design phase. Freilich said he and others are looking. He said there are grants which would pay for the actual paddle trails. The Recreation Plan includes two paddle trails, a river-long walking trail, fishing access and signage. He hopes to update the Inyo Supervisors in December.

The surprising response of volunteers on the river has given Freilich a lift. He said, “I’m inspired by the people joining in on this.” Bystanders wish the party responsible for the river destruction in the first place would lend a hand too.

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