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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A River Comes Home

Air Date: Week of

A century ago, the then small city of Los Angeles was running out of water so it appropriated an entire river 200 miles to the north. Now, after decades of confrontation, the Owens River could regain some of its former life. Ilsa Setziol of member station KPCC reports.


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Coming up: One landlubber's quest to become a salty dog. But first: A century ago, Los Angeles, then just a small city, was running out of water. So, LA officials, in a move that would be hard to imagine today, used under the table payments, arm-twisting persuasion and outright fraud to seize control over a river that ran through ranching country, 200 miles to the north. The Owens River was diverted out of its valley and into a pipeline, quenching the growing city's thirst but leaving the Owens Valley high and dry. Now, decades later, Valley residents have scored a major legal victory that, as Ilsa Setziol reports, will have water flowing through the old river bed once again.


SETZIOL: In the Owens Valley, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, there's a sharp turn in the Owens River. The river flowed here for tens of thousands of years, digging down deep into the earth, cutting an 800-foot gorge. But it hit a patch of granite and had to yield, creating the bend. In more recent history, the river has bent to human needs and desires. Power plants and LA's water diversions dried up the Owens River.


SETZIOL: But today it has returned, at least along nine miles of the gorge. Brian Tillemans with the LA Department of Water and Power looks down at a green ribbon of willows and cottonwood trees at the bottom of the rocky canyon.

TILLEMANS: We went from a desert environment to a riparian corridor in about three to four years. These trees weren't here 13 years ago and are now 25 to 49 feet high.

SETZIOL: Tillemans oversees environmental restoration for the Department of Water and Power, or DWP. He says the gorge is a model for restoring 62 miles of the river that runs south of here. It's the largest project of its kind ever undertaken in the West. Tillemans says they're planning to take water that now flows into an aqueduct bound for LA and send it back into the original riverbed.

TILLEMANS: We're also going to send down what's called seasonal habitat flows. And those are flows that come down to mimic the snowmelt. Those will be the higher flows that will provide the ability to put the sediments up on the bank and recharge that flood plain aquifer and get the seeds of the woody species established in the outer perimeters of the flood plain.

SETZIOL: Behind Tillemans, white-throated swifts dart out of nests in the cliff. He says reestablishing the river, and the plants and animals that rely on it, is partly a matter of timing. For example, they didn't have to plant trees in the gorge.

TILLEMANS: Down below here we have cottonwoods and willows below this one site. And there's little seeps that have persisted. If you come up here during the springtime and the trees are putting out seeds, the thermals will take those seeds and you can just see the seeds drifting up canyon. Those were the trees that we were watching, those seed sources and when they were pumping out the most seeds, that's when we were timing our flows to come down.

SETZIOL: Just to get the Lower Owens River Restoration started could cost LA's Water Authority more than $20 million, and enough water for 30,000 LA homes. But DWP, as some folks here point out, isn't doing all this because it's kind-hearted. The water agency's hand was forced by lawsuits. Still, water will flow into the lower river, beginning in the fall of 2006. Local environmentalists, like Mike Prather, are enthusiastic but wary.

PRATHER: If you look at the Lower Owens River management plan, it's very general. There's very little detail in it. And that is one of the concerns. It's kind of like the Department of Water and Power wants us to just trust them and yet we've gone through 100 years of trust not being a good thing to do.

SETZIOL: Prather is with the Owens Valley Committee. He's strolling along another stretch of the river that gets a little water now, but will get a lot more with the new project. Lesser goldfinches are harvesting seeds from small sunflowers. A Bewick's wren sings, and an osprey circles over the tops of tall willows.


PRATHER: That's the osprey. He's wishing he could find something to eat. The river's not quite a great place for fish right now but, hopefully, that will be changing.

SETZIOL: Prather hopes the project will create habitat for species that have either disappeared or become rare. That includes birds such as the Least Bell's vireo and the Yellow-billed cuckoo. But he's not sure there'll be enough water to do it.

PRATHER: And the flows that they're proposing may not bring water and nutrients up onto the oxbows where we want these gallery forests of willows and cottonwoods.

SETZIOL: Some ranchers worry the flows will be too high, flooding pastureland they lease from the Department of Water and Power. And, while the project will promote habitat for bass—bass aren't indigenous to the river but they're popular with fishermen—it's unclear if native fish will ever return to the river. And it won't be the wild, sometimes tempestuous river it once was.

TILLEMANS: People always think you have to get it back to the exact pristine conditions, but man's part of the environment, part of the ecosystem, there are social needs for water and for electricity, etc.

SETZIOL: Tillemans says DWP can control the Owens River in a way that's beneficial to humans and creates a healthy river. In the Owens Valley, I'm Ilsa Setziol.

[MUSIC: Jolimont Project “Eileen” Lingo (Music Helvetica) 1997]



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