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Fish Kill Reaches Epidemic : Environment: High man-made flows in Owens River cause thousands of bass, catfish and carp to suffocate.

July 31, 1993|RICH ROBERTS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lone Pine stinks. Thousands of dead fish are rotting along the nearby Owens River, and more are dying every day.

Cause of death: oxygen depletion of the water caused by new, heavy flows bringing alkaline silt and organic material into the habitat. The fish are suffocating.

Dan Harris, who runs Slater Sporting Goods in Lone Pine, said: "As far as I'm concerned, that ends the bass fishing in this area."

The twist, though, is that instead of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the usual scapegoat for Owens Valley fishery problems, the California Department of Fish and Game is getting most of the blame.

Bob Hayner, president and co-founder of the Owens Valley Warm Water Fishing Assn., estimated that 5,000 fish have been killed this month since heavier flows of water were added to the trickle that has been the lower Owens River since 1913, when the river was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

The fish are mostly largemouth bass, along with some catfish and carp. It might be the second-largest man-caused freshwater fish kill in California history, behind the Upper Sacramento River disaster two years ago when a Southern Pacific tank car spilled herbicide into that blue-ribbon trout stream.

Water for fish should have been no problem this year after a drought-busting winter in the Eastern Sierra. The disaster resulted from what the principal agencies called "a joint wildlife improvement study," with the intent to create a better warm-water fishery in the lower Owens Valley--not kill the one that was there.

The long-term goal of the Lower Owens River Project was to re-water 62 miles of the river that had been devoid of regular flows for 80 years. Meanwhile, leaks and springs have allowed some fish to survive and thrive in ponds thick with tule growth.

Under an agreement among the DFG, the DWP and the Inyo County Water Department, flow studies were started this month to determine the amount of water that should be diverted back into the historic river bed. But there was a difference of opinion on how heavy the initial flows should be.

According to Hayner, Fish and Game suggested 125 cubic feet per second, but DWP and Inyo County Water thought 50 would be sufficient.

Hayner said he was so alarmed by Fish and Game's proposal that he wrote letters to state officials warning, "If you put a large volume of water down there, you're going to kill a lot of fish."

They settled on 80 cubic feet per second and, apparently, that was too much.

New flows, Hayner explained, historically flush sediment that clogs fish gills and collect organic wastes that draw oxygen from the water.

Alan Pickard, biologist for Fish and Game, said: "I'm pretty confident what killed the fish. It's just D.O.--low dissolved oxygen."

Lone Pine is a town of 3,000 on U.S. 395 about 210 miles north of Los Angeles. Another resident, Lois Wilson, said Friday that for the last three or four days the town had been bothered by the foul odor.

"The stench here in Lone Pine is really bad, especially in the morning, she said. "We didn't know what it was. We thought maybe there was a sewer line broken. Then we discovered it was dead fish rotting."

The river is two miles east of town. The water was released at the aqueduct intake about 25 miles north, between Independence and Big Pine, a few miles north of the Black Rock fish hatchery. The plan is to pump the water back into the aqueduct at the southern end of the project, before it would enter the dry Owens Lake.

"We're not opposed to the flow study," Hayner said. "We understand the importance of this study, and we realized there would be some loss (of fish). But we've exceeded a minimal loss."

John Sullivan, deputy director of the Fish and Game, speaking from Bishop Friday, said the department didn't know how many fish had died, but he didn't dispute Hayner's estimate.

Nor did Jim Wickser, the DWP's assistant general manager for water in Los Angeles.

"They're still discovering them," Wickser said. "A lot of areas are almost inaccessible. I'm sure the numbers are in the high hundreds, perhaps in the low thousands."

The first water was released July 6. The water took 10 or 11 days to run the first 20 miles, and by July 18 dead fish were found, Hayner said.

Harris said he saw fish that had tried to escape into tributaries such as Russell Ditch and Georges Creek Ditch.

"The day before yesterday, they shut those off, and two hours ago I was down there," he said. "It's covered with dead bass. I'm talking about one-pound to five-pound fish. It makes me cry."

Wickser said the flow had been reduced in steps from 80 c.f.s to 40 to 15 as the water eventually reached Owens Lake, although at one point so much water was being lost into the ground and long-dry channels that the valves were turned up to more than 200 c.f.s. at the top end to keep the flow at 80 in the main channel.

Sullivan indicated that a plan to save the surviving fish is impractical because of the thick brush around most of the ponds and channels.

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