A River Reborn Tracking the Lower Owens River Revival

The revival of the 62-mile Lower Owens River is the largest river restoration project in the history of the American west. It’s been a long time coming for residents of the Eastern Sierra. Ninety-five years ago the river vanished from the Owens Valley and was diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, supplying water to the city of Los Angeles. But in December 2006—under court order—snowmelt from the Sierra was redirected into the Lower Owens, breathing life back into the river. Now its waters support schools of brown trout, western king birds perched on tule reeds and majestic great blue herons.

“It’s looking incredibly healthy,” says Mike Prather, outreach coordinator and former president of the Owens Valley Committee. “It looks like the river was shot in the arm with vitamins.” Inyo County officials are hoping the river will one day spawn a recreational industry for kayakers, anglers, hikers and bird-watchers.

If the restoration project is to maintain that goal, much will depend on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) seeing eye-to-eye with Inyo County and environmentalists on the use of the river. The Sierra Club’s successful lawsuit against the LADWP took 24 years to attain a verdict, eventually leading to a judicial order that launched the 77,657-acre project as mediation for environmental damage from the LADWP illegally pumping groundwater from a second aqueduct located in the Owens Valley south of Olancha, diverting more water to Los Angeles.

“We’ve always been behind the project,” says Chris Plakos of the LADWP. “It was more of an implementation time frame that got us into legal issues than it was to do or not to do the project. Of course we were going to do the project.”

Drought, which could thwart the project and divert the flow of 55,000 cubic feet of Sierra snowmelt a year, is also an issue. “It will depend on the runoff amount,” continued Plakos. “The best way to help Mother Nature is to let the river take its course. You can’t mimic miles and miles of river. It’s just not possible.”

The replenished Lower Owens River, supported by cottonwood trees, is attracting wildlife like the great horned owl

River ecologist Mark Hill says it could be 15 to 20 years before the river is fully restored. However, if the early returns are any indication, then the Lower Owens is on a steady track to recovery. During that time span, Hill, who works with Ecosystem Sciences Foundation in Idaho, will gauge the river’s vitality, including its 3,500 acres of wetlands, increased flows, its water quality and its ever-increasing inhabitants.

Hill has worked on a number of river restoration projects around the globe including the Nile, Mekong and Ganges, and in North America along the Columbia, Snake, Rogue, Yuba and American rivers. But the Lower Owens will be the first river Hill has started from the ground up.

“This is a young river,” he says on a paddling trip from Independence in the Eastern Sierra. “We had to start from scratch, but right now our biggest challenge is changing the river flows.”

As Hill, his son Zach—a keen paddler and an environmental planner for the Lower Owens—and I ease down a five-mile section of the Lower Owens, we come across many new, robust willow trees hugging the edge of the runnel, the beginnings of that much-needed riparian canopy.

“Nature does a tremendous job of planting,” continues Hill as we negotiate some tight, narrow turns in the tules. “The water has done all the heavy lifting.”

For decades, dried-up sage, tumbleweeds and cow manure choked the dusty, parched river bottom. Now with the Lower Owens being flooded each spring and transporting cottonwood and willow seeds, Hill and other ecologists will keep an eye out for a shady canopy of trees hovering above the mild current of a new river.

“The valley is gentle and the gradient is small, only 300 feet,” Prather says. “The way to control cattails is speed and current, but with such a low gradient we need trees to grow and those will shade the tules.”

The replenished river is already attracting wildlife. Bobcats, minks, coyotes and ospreys have been sighted, herds of elk are in the vicinity, a great horned owl gazes back from its cottonwood perch and tree frogs hug the thick stocks of tule reeds. Over 400 bird species have been documented in the Owens Valley, and the rejuvenated Lower Owens will become a major stopover for a bevy of migrating bird species. A pair of Owens Valley suckers—native fish—swim beneath our kayaks. Of all the species of wildlife, Hill says the fish have recovered the fastest.

“The fishery is just about there,” he says, motioning to a group of large-mouth bass. “We’re creating an ecosystem through trial and error using passive techniques.”

There’s been no remodeling of channels or building up river banks lined with rocks and logs using heavy equipment. Instead, implementing river flows at the right time while removing cattle grazing and other land management actions have been the keys to success.

Says Hill: “This approach recognizes that nature will do a far superior job of restoring the river, trusting the ecological concept of self-organization, than we could achieve with expensive and risky interventions.”