Who wins when a river returns?

  • Owens River in California

    Diane Sylvain
  • The Owens River, today surrounded by desert

    Donald Fonner

OWENS VALLEY, Calif. - Between the two small towns of Big Pine and Lone Pine, the Owens River flows through a desert, its banks sprinkled with saltcedar and rabbitbrush, its denizens kangaroo rats and snakes.

But it wasn't always like this. And it will change in the next decade if an appeals court approves an agreement between the city of Los Angeles and Inyo County.

If that happens, it will mark the second time in three years that courts have ordered Los Angeles to restore part of an ecosystem it all but destroyed by sending water out of the eastern Sierra to Los Angeles. The first settlement, in 1994, renewed the Mono Basin and Mono Lake's feeder streams. Now, after a separate legal battle that has lasted a quarter century, Inyo County has negotiated the restoration of the lower Owens River.

The county's plan would keep water in the river rather than diverting it into an aqueduct. Then, after its new 60-mile run, the water would be pumped back into the city's aqueduct just north of Owens Dry Lake. Land near the top and the bottom of the revived river would also be flooded to create wetlands.

"It's unique to be out in the middle of the desert and have 60 miles of new riparian area to create," said Greg James, a county attorney who also directs Inyo County's water department. "And it's unique that the amount of water going down the river will be based on habitat, not on water needs in Los Angeles."

If humans played God when they killed the old river, the chance to create a new river has them playing God again under the county's plan. Non-native largemouth bass and the anglers who fish for them are the big winners. Rather than trying to mimic the natural highs and lows of the historic river, says James, the river would be thoroughly managed for the constant flows non-native bass need.

The old river once surged with runoff from deep Sierra snowpacks well into late spring. By autumn, it receded to an ephemeral creek after withering summers under a baking sun. Occasional flooding created wetlands and shallows along the main river and raised the level of the area's groundwater.

The bass could never thrive in those conditions, so county leaders and state fish and game officials who are looking for an economic boost pushed for continuous flows instead. The only flow-spike would be occasional spring flows of up to 200 cubic-feet per second. That means native pupfish and dace that used to inhabit this river won't survive; those fish disappear as bait fish do when they share a river or pond with the non-native bass.

Bass aren't the only winners. State biologists expect cottonwood and willow trees along the banks of the river to flourish, with help from artificial spring flooding. The biologists also expect the new canopy to promote a riparian understory to replace the desert shrubs now throttling the old river bed. Summer resident birds of Owens Valley, like warblers and grosbeaks, should thrive in the new growth, though perhaps only with a parallel effort to control parasitic brown-headed cowbirds that threaten the migrants.

In addition, a new 350-acre estuary at the river delta at Owens Dry Lake would provide habitat for shorebirds during critical junctures in their migration each spring and late summer. Stopping places have diminished along the Great Basin stretch of the Pacific Flyway, the great aerial freeway used by millions of birds shuttling between Canada and Central and South America. And at Blackrock, 10 dry miles below where water would be pumped back into the aqueduct after its trip down the Lower Owens, a system of ditches would spread water to create another 1,500 acres of wetlands there.

Still, the best-laid plans can't guarantee how a long-dry river will respond.

"We all have real questions about how the flows are going to work," James said. "There's no real defined channel out there. Is 40 cubic-feet per second going to create a big tule marsh and evaporate? Is it going to stay in the channel and provide habitat for fish? Are we going to have to get in and do channel work in order to make the Lower Owens function as a river again?"

A few locals also question whether the project is really needed for the benefit of wildlife other than largemouth bass.

"There's a lot of wildlife down there already," says Scott Kemp, a local rancher who runs cattle on a riverside plot owned by the city of Los Angeles. "It won't get any better than it is right now because right now there isn't much access to the river. Once you develop the project and improve the fishing, then you bring in people and decrease the amount of wildlife."

Alan Pickard, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, concedes there's an element of truth in that. "But the benefits of restoration and recovery will outweigh those impacts," he adds.

Some also question the $10 million cost to construct the pumping station that will put water back into the aqueduct after its trip down the Lower Owens. Leaving water in the river also means more evaporation - at least 15,000 acre-feet a year - which means Los Angeles will have to buy water from elsewhere to make up for the loss. That's a $5 million to $7 million annual bill for the L.A. Department of Water and Power ratepayers.

But the city seems committed to the project, as does the fish and game department.

Jeff Putman writes from Mammoth Lakes, California.