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Newly Released Owens River Plan Envisions Restored Stream, Wetlands

Long-delayed report tells how DWP intends to revive the nearly dry waterway by early 2004.

November 02, 2002|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

A long-delayed plan to put water back into the lower Owens River in the eastern Sierra reached its first major milestone Friday with the release of an environmental study of the project. Officials hope to have the water flowing by early 2004.

The lengthy environmental report explains how the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power plans to restore flows to 62 miles of meandering river that have been reduced to a trickle since 1913, when the DWP began diverting the lower Owens to Los Angeles through an aqueduct.

The study offers a preview of the river snaking back and forth across the Valley floor, nourishing a burgeoning forest of willows and cottonwoods along its banks. The restored flows are to be small but steady, unlike the temperamental old river, which flooded occasionally. The flows are to be increased each spring to replenish wetlands along the river's banks.

A major dispute remains, however, over how much water will ultimately be pumped back into the aqueduct and not allowed to reach the Owens River delta, where the river spills into the dry Owens Lake bed in Inyo County. The delta is considered an important stopover for migratory birds.

Officials said the plan is unusual because there are few if any other cities in the arid West willing to sacrifice a significant chunk of their water supply for such a project.

"Considering the magnitude and scope of this plan, I think this is something that the city of Los Angeles should be very proud of," said Leah Kirk, a projects coordinator for the Inyo County Water Department, which co-wrote the study with the DWP.

Restoring the flows will cost the DWP about 30,000 acre-feet of water each year, enough to supply 60,000 families. To make up for the loss, the DWP may have to increase the amount of water it purchases from the Metropolitan Water District, the principal water wholesaler for Southern California.

The lower Owens project has been racked with controversy since it was first conceived in 1991 as mitigation for excessive groundwater pumping by the DWP in the Owens Valley.

The study was initially due in June 2000 but was delayed numerous times when DWP and Inyo County officials couldn't agree on details. This fall, an Inyo County judge ordered the study to be released by Friday after two environmental groups, the Sierra Club and the Owens Valley Committee, filed a suit.

"We're excited about it, although we think it may be an ugly baby," said the committee's Mike Prather, who fears there won't be enough water to sustain the delta. But he also praised the project, saying higher flows and newly forested riverbanks will offer quality habitat for several types of fish, dozens of bird species, and deer and tule elk.

A final environmental study is due next spring.

"It's great to finally see this coming to fruition," said Clarence Martin, a water engineer with the DWP in the Owens Valley. "I don't know of anywhere in the West or anywhere in the world where a project is going to put water back into a river that hasn't had water for nearly a century."

The study can be read online at www.lorpeir.com.

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