By Deb Murphy
The Lower Owens River Project, the most ambitious river restoration ever attempted, did not come with an owner’s manual. There is no guide to bringing a high desert river back to life after 100 years of dormancy.
The closest thing to an owner’s manual would be the project consultant Ecosystem Sciences’ annual adaptive management recommendations. The 2014 document will be released this Monday with a public meeting to discuss those recommendations scheduled for mid-January. At the January 2013 public meeting, Ecosystem Sciences’ Mark Hill described a LORP at “a tipping point,” seven years after water was sent down the riverbed.
The project was initiated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power/Inyo County Long Term Water Agreement and amended by a 1997 Memorandum of Understanding.
The issues last year were poor water quality and rampant tule growth. Tules were clogging the channel with generations of vegetation decaying on the river bottom, sucking the oxygen out of the water and reducing the viability of a warm-water fishery. The vision of woody recruitment, eco-speak for trees, was suffocated by those tules, ranchers’ grazing leases were invaded, recreational access required a machete.
Last year’s recommendations included removing the restrictions on minimum and seasonal flows, 40 cubic feet per second and a maximum of 200 cfs, respectively, to more effectively mirror what nature would do, to turn the river into a river and not a canal.
Increasing flows were attached to increasing the capacity at the pump-back station that moves the water at the base of the river back to the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The station is legally limited to 50 cfs but capable of pumping at a maximum of 72 cfs. Flows would be lower than 40 cfs in the winter with the hopeful result that tules would die back and trees would grow, eventually limiting the spread of tulles that thrive in full sun. The seasonal habitat flows in the spring would further define the river’s banks and flush the accumulated biomass. The river’s gradient wasn’t helping the situation, but flows that duplicated nature could return the Owens to a real high desert river.
Altering the flow restrictions and the pump-back capacity, however, requires change, permanent or temporary, to the MOU among five parties (the Sierra Club, Owens Valley Committee, the City of Los Angeles, California State Lands Commission and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife). One-time only changes to the MOU have been made in the past to allow for seasonal flows that match current run-off conditions.
Last year’s meeting was followed by a late-July River Summit with all involved parties getting a cram course on the river conditions. Water quality monitoring was part of the 2014-15 LORP Work Plan, but no agreement has been reached on modifying the flows or the pump-back capacity.
The OVC’s position is that beneficial changes can be made to the work plan without increasing the pump-back station’s capacity. “We could eliminate some of the clogs,” said OVC president Mary Roper, “and the flushing flows” could improve conditions on the river. The OCV based its decision on information and suggestions presented by member Sally Manning, an active participant in the Summit.
Her suggestions included using “reasonable measures to remove tules and beaver dams that block water flow. Methods include manual, but more likely mechanical, removal of emergent vegetation and dams and judicious earth-moving to the extent necessary to allow flows.”
Other possible considerations included allowing the tules to “live out their time” or launching a three-year study of the vegetation with the focus on future control; “enlarging the pond from which the pump-back station sucks up the water to provide greater flow management” without increasing capacity; “removing the yellow-billed cuckoo from the Habitat Indicator species list” which would require additional habitat on “more suitable locations on LA-owned lands;” reducing flows below 40 cfs in the winter months and delivering water of high quality to the LORP.
“There are things that can be done without increasing the pump-back capacity,” Roper said in a phone interview. “We’re here to speak the truth, even if it’s not popular.”
“Our main goal is a healthy Lower Owens River,” said LADWP Aqueduct Manager Jim Yannotta. His position is the project could be improved with a lower base flow to allow the river banks to dry out during the winter, encouraging tree growth, and a seasonal habitat flow close to 300 cfs, doable within the current 41,000 acre-feet water budget. Those changes would require upping the pump-back capacity to a maximum of 72 cfs to capture the increased flow.
LADWP has developed a new hydrograph, Yannotta said, that would satisfy the consultant’s recommendations and improve water quality. His hope is that a temporary adjustment to the MOU, perhaps up to two years, could be put in place to see if conditions on the river improve. Once the MOU partners have the opportunity to review the adaptive management recommendations, “we can go to the partners to implement the amendment. Hopefully, we can come together.”
One sticking point raised at the Summit was the possibility of LADWP pumping groundwater east of the river. “That has nothing to do with the LORP and we have no designs or plans to do that,” Yannotta said stressing that LADWP’s job in the Eastern Sierra was to manage its water resource, as opposed to groundwater mining.