High public interest in tule-ridden river.

High public interest in tule-ridden river.

by Charles James

The Lower Owens River Project continues to garner much interest with local groups. At the packed public meeting held in Bishop on January 13th at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Conference Room, the room was literally packed to capacity with more than 4 dozen local residents, and representatives from various local agencies, including 4 of the 5 Inyo County Supervisors.

The term “adaptive management” was heard repeatedly during the scheduled two-hour meeting that, due to the high interest and lively discussions, turned into  three hours. The main gist of the meeting was that adjusting water flows in the Lower Owens River using existing flow restrictions codified in the Long Term Water Agreement was not effective at either improving water quality or controlling invasive tules, which are constricting the river flow. The result is a river less appealing for fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and grazing, along with a host of other potential recreational uses. The need to have “flexibility to manage the river flows” was considered critical to LORP’s long-term success.

The meeting was kicked off with a presentation by Inyo County Water Department’s Mitigation Manager Larry Freilich giving an overview and inventory on the health of the river and surrounding environment. Overall it was a positive report, but he noted that the overgrowth of tules in the river channel is creating bottlenecks and making the river unnavigable.

There was discussion on how best to go about getting everyone involved in the Water Agreement’s Memorandum of Understanding to reach a consensus allowing greater flexibility in deciding when and how much flow can be implemented, basing the success of the change over the next few years to see if it works. One thing that everyone seemed to agree on was that the current situation has not been successful in achieving the original lofty goals of LORP; neither meeting the needs of water quality, water flow, hoped-for environmental improvements, needs of ranchers, or recreational opportunities

Monday’s meeting was in sharp contrast to the LORP report of 2011, which seemed to indicate a degree of public satisfaction, mostly given the lack of objections. Over time, the results of existing methods of river flow have proved far less effective in achieving the goals.

Consultant Bill Platts said the goal remains the same for the LORP and the adaptive management of monitoring the vegetation, river flows, and environment needed to result in a healthy habitat needs to be tweaked, noting that, “If it were not for the restrictions in the current Water Agreement, we could save water and have a much better river.”

The Agreement calls for LADWP to maintain a consistent 40 cfs flow throughout the river with no more than a maximum seasonal flow of 200 cfs. To maintain that standard, LADWP Watershed Resources Manager Brian Tillemans said that during the summer they have to release as much as 90 cfs to maintain that standard. Consultant Mark Hill noted that “the water flow was a legal requirement and not a biologic one,” adding further that “it isn’t working”, a point on which most in the room appeared to be in agreement.

Platts Consulting says that variable water flow would not have deleterious effect on the flow of the water going south, which is currently moving along at approximately 41,000 acre-feet per years. It was pointed out that the Owens River is essentially a “desert river” and, unlike most other types of rivers, its river flows are “seasonally upside down from where they should be.”

As the meeting progressed, the issue of tules overgrowth was discussed. Although there are several ways to control tules from herbicides to drowning them or by desiccation, i.e. dry them out, there are also mechanical methods of removing tules. Just such an effective effort was led during the summer through the Inyo County Water Department by Freilich as an experiment using volunteers along approximately a 1-1/2 mile stretch of the Lower Owens.

While tules do provide a great habitat for fish, when overgrown they make it difficult to navigate the river and allow access for fishing. Too many tules also diminishes the flow of water.  No thought is given to completely eradicating tules, although it was said that the “old Owens River had very few tules because of natural flow.” Tules provide a healthy fishery, clean the water, and provide nesting areas for local wildlife.

“The huge biomass,” said Platt, “of the tules (which is how they spread out into the river channel) can greatly reduce the level of oxygen in the water and result in fish kills.” This appears to be what happened in late-July during seasonal thunderstorms which resulted in a “fish kill” along the Lower Owens. That brought Sally Manning with the Big Pine Tribe to the floor to state that she thought the recent fish kill as a result of water sent into the river channel from the Alabama Gates spillway should be a part of the annual report and that, in her opinion, it was the result of poor management. LADWP disputed the accusation saying that official findings on the incident found that the problem was the result of low dissolved oxygen and high turbidity levels in the river and combined with the “unpredictability of summer storms” that can happen anywhere along the Eastern Sierra is what proved lethal to the warm-water fishery.

A mention of the proposed solar power ranch across from Manzanar was brought up by Mary Roper of Independence, contending that the project was in violation of LADWP’s own mitigation obligations as it is adjacent to the river.

Between the “fish kill” discussion and the solar power ranch, the meeting went well into its third hour, and most agreed with County Supervisor Linda Arcularius when she stated the discussion was going off subject. The meeting was back on track with a suggestion by retired Bureau of Land Management Biologist Terry Russi, that “Every project should be looked upon as an experiment” and that, “you have to realize that you will never reach the project goals.”

Russi went on to suggest what he called “outside the box” thinking on how to most effectively remove tule biomass: Blow it up! Apparently using a special form of explosive, this method had proven very effective in his experience when working for BLM in clearing a waterway and it resulted in little damage to fish or other biologicals found in the water. It was an interesting end to the meeting. In a sense, the meeting ended with a bang.

To find a copy of the LORP Report with recommendations, visit the Inyo County Water Department’s website at: www.inyowater.org. The public comment period ends on January 28 and can be sent to the Water Department to be included in the final drafting of the annual LORP Report. For more information, call Larry Freilich at (760) 878-0011 or send your questions and comments to his email address at [email protected].

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