By Deb Murphy
The Owens River Water Trail generates impressive community support, opens up a stretch of river for recreation and water quality improvements, provides a unique and soothing experience but also comes with challenges.
Those challenges were addressed at Tuesday’s Inyo County Board of Supervisors’ meeting. By the end of the hour-long discussion, the Board voted unanimously to sign the agreement with the Natural Resources Agency for the $500,000 River Parkways grant awarded last summer, opening up the possibility that the water trail may actually happen.
Background: The project, coordinated by Mitigation Manager Larry Freilich, starts at the Narrow Gauge Road north of Lone Pine and runs 6.2 miles. To allow for canoes and kayaks, a section has to be widened and rid of tulles. Additional funding has been committed from the state Boating and Waterways Commission for handicap-accessible inputs and takeouts.
This aspect of the project has drawn strong support from the Wounded Warriors and Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra. To begin the process, a site agreement is required from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The department wanted to have the environmental work done prior to signing off on the agreement but the County couldn’t afford to do the study without grant funds which wouldn’t be released without a site agreement. They call that a stalemate.
At February’s Standing Committee meeting, Christina Noonan made the motion that LADWP underwrite the cost of the EIR. Stalemate broken. The environmental study won’t guarantee the project will proceed, but it will answer most of the questions and concerns.
County Water Director Bob Harrington addressed those concerns at Tuesday’s Board meeting: where does the tulle debris go—on the floodplain or to the landfill; what would the impact be of dredging equipment on the habitat or the impact of the project work on the grazing lessee be; then there’s the cost of operations and maintenance, a cost County Administrative Officer Kevin Carunchio estimated at $37,000 annually.
Carunchio has questioned whether the half-a-million dollar funding was adequate to
complete the project and the ramifications to the County if it didn’t, especially of the Environmental Impact Report turned up costly mitigation requirements.
Some of the speakers during the public comment period provided answers. Philip Anaya suggested Memorandums of Understanding with existing organizations to help with the trail’s maintenance. Composting the tulle debris was another suggestion.
Mary Roper, president of the Owens Valley Committee, urged the Board to take this next step toward a navigable stretch of the river. The OVC has already begun meeting with other groups on the project’s maintenance issues.
Speaking from personal experience, she also talked of the need for solitude and the
quieting quality of floating the river on veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Mike Prather, involved in the Lower Owens River Project since its inception, was confident the Board would sign the grant agreement. His confidence was well placed. After a brief discussion, Supervisor Matt Kingsley moved to proceed and the motion passed unanimously.
“We all agree this is a great project,” said Carunchio. At the end of the discussion, he suggested the project supporters hedge their bets and come to the Board with signed cooperative agreements in hand.