By Deb Murphy
Harry Williams looks at the Owens River with different eyes.
Nobody ever told his people that “man has dominion over all the earth.” The relationship between Native Americans and the world they live in is familial. “If we don’t take care of Mother Earth,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday, “she won’t take care of you.”
As a board member on the Owens Valley Committee, Williams had just gotten out of a meeting with the Lower Owens River Project Memorandum of Understanding partners. The meeting was called to test the waters on changing the base flows and the pump-back station capacity.
The 40 cubic feet per second base flow and 50 cfs limit at the station were codified in the MOU requiring unanimous agreement from all five partners. At last month’s LORP Annual Report, the project consultants, Ecosystem Sciences, repeated their recommendations that both aspects of the agreement be changed for a three-year period to improve water quality, encourage tree growth and control the invasive tule growth.
At that January meeting, other MOU partners seemed open to changes in the restrictions. The OVC board has yet to vote. “They’re going to play the blame game,” said Williams. “That doesn’t bother me. I’ll vote for what I think is right.”
The consultants’ perspective is that the restrictions are negatively impacting the goals of the project; something different should be put in place to get the river back on track. Williams has a different perspective. “It’s a 62-mile long river,” he said. “It’s not just the area below the Alabama Gates (where most of the issues are apparent). It’s a mitigation project (for Los Angeles Department of Water and Power groundwater pumping). We shouldn’t complain about the tules. There are bugs, frogs, other wildlife there.”
According to Williams, the project was to be monitored for its first 15 years; the river was re-watered seven years ago, half way through that time period. He wants to give the Owens a chance to repair itself. “Nature doesn’t go that fast,” he said. “Woody recruitment doesn’t just happen. The river banks haven’t stabilized yet.”
Much of the progress has been stymied by three years’ of drought with little or no seasonal habitat flows initiated to help flush out the muck on the river bottom and scour the banks of tules.
The biggest sticking point is the increased capacity at the pump-back station. The consultants’ justification is fairly simple. Excess water beyond the 50 cfs capacity goes onto the Owens Delta at a time when it doesn’t need the water. “They call it a waste,” Williams said. “It’s not a waste, it’s creating habitat.”
For LADWP, the increased pumping capacity and a base flow that mirrors natural flows will allow the project to be water neutral. The same amount of water that has gone into the river at the intake below Tinemaha in the past will course down the Owens if the changes are made.
For Williams, the issue is a matter of trust. “They (LADWP) will get their foot in the door,” he said of increasing the pump capacity. Williams, like most of the OVC members, have traveled the long path of the LADWP’s second aqueduct and groundwater pumping all leading to the battles over the Long Term Water Agreement. For more recent or less invested Owens Valley residents who may view the issues from a spectators’ point of view, this is personal. “This isn’t as simple as it looks,” Williams said. “We’re not obstructing (the LORP’s progress); we’re trying to protect it.”
Williams wants to look at the language, the wording submitted to the courts to remove the restrictions for the next three years, before he can vote.