Lower Owens River Project

--13 Years Later

photo of LORP at Narrow Gauge RoadThe 2019 Draft Lower Owens River Project (LORP) Annual Report is out and this year it includes an overview of the project after 13 years of re-watering the lower part of the Owens River. (See all annual reports here.)

Water has been flowing down the Owens River all the way to Owens Lake since February 2007. That is an accomplishment worth celebrating because a section of the river, from the aqueduct intake to Owens Lake, was dry for 93 years (1913-2007). It required years of work on the part of dedicated lawyers, the Owens Valley Committee, Inyo County staff, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Sierra Club, LADWP, and many others to put water back in the river. The result was the Lower Owens River Project (LORP). It is mitigation for environmental impacts from pumping groundwater that started in 1970 in the Owens Valley to fill the second barrel of the LA Aqueduct. Quite quickly, the impact of that extensive pumping became plainly visible on the surface. Springs dried up. Marsh and meadow vegetation died. The landscape turned shades of brown. The LORP puts water back in the river below the aqueduct intake and it puts water in ponds to the west of the river to create wetland habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds. 


So how is it now, 13 years later? It is much greener along the river, but not back to how it was before the groundwater pumping or the LA Aqueduct started; nor will it ever be. It is a managed river that splits at the aqueduct intake near Aberdeen. About 300-350 cfs of water goes into the aqueduct and about 40-90 cfs continues down the Owens River channel and is pumped back into the aqueduct near the lake, with some water allowed to flow to the delta. (Map with stats: http://wsoweb.ladwp.com/Aqueduct/realtime/owensrealtime.htm.


The overarching goal of the LORP is to create a healthy, functioning ecosystem to restore biodiversity and protect endangered species. Many of the components of the project have been met; many have not. The most difficult component to meet has been bringing back willows and cottonwood trees along the river. There is a section of the river below Reinhackle Springs called the “Islands” where the valley is very flat. The river spreads out and creates a marsh before it finds the channel again. Tules have encroached and fill the river here. It was an unintended consequence of the low flows and the flat terrain. Unless some changes are made to the original 1991 agreements, the marsh will extend further out and upstream as time goes on and the desired riparian habitat will never develop. 

Built into the project is a seasonal high flow of up to 200 cfs. However, this has not been sufficient to clear out tules in the river channel. Most people involved in the project agree the river needs large, seasonal flows to flush the river of 800+ cfs. The problem is that the legal requirements don’t allow it and large flows will damage roads that cross the river, cause fish kills, and flood the delta. There are possible solutions and the legal agreements allow adaptive management, however, many more hours of negotiations will be required for all parties involved to agree on what those adaptations should be. Recommendations for this year are: 1) to pole-plant or seed willows and cottonwoods, 2) move the timing of the seasonal habitat flow up to early May when water is cooler, 3) reduce the amount of water in summer in the Blackrock Waterfowl and Delta Habitat areas and increase them in fall and spring, and 4) do an electro shock fish survey. 

           photo of LORP choked with tules               photo of Owens River at start of LORP

               This section of the Owens River is filled with tules.                     This is at the start of the LORP and how the Owens

                                                                                                                                           River looks with higher flows.