During the six years I lived in California, the Owens Valley came to hold a special place in my heart. Though I have not set foot in it for over ten years, it still does. So, while in the midst of the final days of the Ciro Rodriguez campaign a month ago, I was pleased to hear some exciting news regarding this valley's river, whose water has until now been virtually completely siphoned off into an aqueduct to flow south to distant Los Angeles — High Sierra water is flowing again in the lower Owens River for the first time in nearly a century!
The Owens Valley is a 10,000-foot deep, spectacularly scenic valley in the rain shadow of the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Despite its lack of precipitation, it contains a major river that drains the prodigious snows of these mountains. This river's water was tapped in the early 1900s by the city of Los Angeles's Department of Water and Power (DWP) in a notorious feat of underhandedness and engineering -- piping the river's water over hundreds of miles of desert to fuel the city's growth.
Over the years, the residents of the Owens Valley fought back against Los Angeles, at times sabotaging the aqueduct to attempt to save the water for their own agricultural ambitions. Over the years, they lost battle after battle after battle. The large, shallow Owens Lake at the south end of the valley soon dried up, leaving a vast plain of salt deposits that blow up a toxic storm in the desert winds.
Eventually, Los Angeles, in its quest for even more water, extended the aquifer north to tap into the creeks that fed Mono Lake, causing that lake, too, to slowly dry up. That wasn't enough. It later increased the capacity of the Owens River aqueduct and even pumped the groundwater out from under the Owens Valley.
All that was left of the century-old dreams of an agricultural empire in the shadow on Mt. Whitney was a vast open dessicated desert valley, whose life-sustaining water silently flowed down a contrete ditch south to a distant megalopolis.
Starting in 1994, though, the tide began to turn, if only just a little. After a long battle by activists to prevent the death of the fascinating ecosystem at Mono Lake, a state agency ordered L.A. to limit its intake of the lake's feeder creeks and allow the lake to rise to a level that would allow it to live on.
In recent years, he city has also been forced to limit its groundwater pumping and re-water a small portion of the dry bed of Owens Lake to help cut down on the severity of the dust storms.
Now, Los Angeles has been forced to return a fraction of the water flow to the bed of the Owens River itself. The Los Angeles Times reported on December 7:
Against a backdrop of lofty snowcapped peaks, about 500 spectators, led by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, gathered Wednesday [December 6] to watch the Lower Owens River ripple anew with its first surge of High Sierra water in nearly a century.
The largest river habitat restoration effort ever attempted in the West was jump-started at 12:15 p.m., when Villaraigosa turned a control knob to open a new clamshell-shaped steel gate at a diversion dam that has been directing the waters that have flowed into the Los Angeles Aqueduct since 1913.
By the time Villaraigosa was heading home in a chartered jet after the hourlong ceremony, the water had traveled roughly half a mile, meandering around a bend, past clots of dusty sagebrush.
It will sweep past the skeletal gray arms of dead cottonwood trees, and through dry zones and broad spring-fed beaver ponds choked with cattails and harboring largemouth bass and catfish, which are expected to spawn hordes of fish in the rehabilitated river.
The water will take about 16 days to traverse the vast Owens Valley floodplain flanked by the High Sierra on the west and the White and Inyo mountains on the east, and pour into storage ponds on the northern edge of the dry Owens Lake.
There, four 600-horsepower pumps will draw the water up and put it back into the aqueduct's ribbon of concrete and steel for transport to Los Angeles, about 250 miles to the south.
If all goes according to plan, within five years nature will transform the revived river's lazy loops into an oasis of willows and cottonwood trees; wetlands for waterfowl and shorebirds, and warm water fisheries for bass, catfish, frogs and crayfish.
Los Angeles, despite all the good feelings in its rhetoric, still had to be forced to do the right thing by a state judge fining them over $2 million -- quite a bit resistance for an action that "is not expected to result in a significant loss of water or in a rate hike for DWP customers." Still, L.A. and the DWP appear to finally be on the right track.
An article in the Washington Post from just before the holidays reminds us what has made this sea change possible (emphasis added):
The city's water conservation efforts have been some of the most successful in the nation; over the past 20 years, while Los Angeles has added 750,000 homes, its water consumption has remained the same. Its water commission used to be dominated by urban boosters, but with time, environmentalists invaded its ranks.
Finally, the DWP itself has changed. "It used to be all engineers," said Prather, "but now they have biologists and wildlife managers."
I am looking forward to returning one day to the Owens Valley and seeing what the process of its ecologic revival looks like.