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DWP to OK Owens River Water Flow

December 17, 2003|Louis Sahagun and Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced Tuesday that it had tentatively agreed to restore steady water flows to the long depleted Owens River within two years.

Formal approval of the agreement by the DWP's board of directors is expected today.

The announcement, with which the DWP hopes to resolve a lawsuit against it, will probably halt a series of delays in launching one of the most ambitious river restorations ever attempted in the arid West.

A 62-mile stretch of the Owens in rural Inyo County near Independence has been mostly dry since 1913, when the river's water was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which carries it south from the Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley.

Spokesmen for the plaintiffs in the suit, including two environmental groups and two state agencies, were optimistic that the terms of the settlement would be accepted. If so, the Owens could have a small but steady year-round flow by the fall of 2005. Some of the water would pour into the delta of dry Owens Lake, where the river terminates, to replenish bird habitat.

"We're going to be there with champagne bottles when that water starts flowing again, because it's been so long in coming," said Mike Prather, an activist with the Owens Valley Committee, an environmental group that joined in the suit. "It will mean a renewed ecosystem for willows and cottonwoods, waterfowl and neotropical migrating songbirds, bobcats and butterflies."

The DWP's board will meet today in a closed session to formally vote on the settlement. Mayor James K. Hahn issued a news release Tuesday touting the deal.

"I think the merits of the case are pretty strong, and I will be recommending to the board that they approve it," said Jerry Gewe, the chief operating officer of water for the DWP.

Gewe said the restoration project would probably cost the DWP enough water to supply 40,000 families each year. He said the loss would be made up through conservation and additional purchases of water from elsewhere in the state.

One possibility, Gewe said, is for the DWP to begin buying water on the open market from farmers in the Central Valley.

Restoration of the Owens River was conceived in 1991, and the plan was amended in 1997, as a way to make up for increased pumping of groundwater by the DWP in the Owens Valley. The restoration was supposed to occur by mid-2003, but the deadline was pushed back several times because of disputes over environmental laws and over how much water Los Angeles would leave in the river.

The Sierra Club and Owens Valley Committee sued the DWP over the delays. They were joined by the California Department of Fish and Game and the State Lands Commission on Dec. 4. The same day, Inyo County Superior Court Judge Edward Denton threatened to impose his own deadline for completing the project.

Facing mounting pressure to act, the DWP, Inyo County, the Sierra Club and an Owens Valley conservation group hammered out a compromise -- sanctioned by Denton -- in a series of tense closed-door meetings in Los Angeles and Bishop over the last week.

"I think this is the best deal accomplished at this time," said Larry Silver, an attorney representing the Sierra Club.

Under another provision of the deal, he said, the DWP would provide up to $1.5 million in matching funds to begin eradicating salt cedar, a nonnative, water-hogging plant found along the river.

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