Residents expressed a desire for greater local flexibility to adjust water flows in the Lower Owens River. Using existing flow restrictions codified in the Long Term Water Agreement between the LADWP and Inyo County has not resulted in improved water quality or controlled invasive tules, they argued. As a result, the river is less appealing for fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and grazing, along with a host of other potential agricultural and recreational uses.
The audience considered the need to have “flexibility to manage the river flows” critical to LORP’s long-term success.
Inyo County Water Department’s Mitigation Manager Larry Freilich gave a positive overview and inventory on the health of the river and surrounding plant and animal life.
However, he noted that the overgrowth of tules in the river channel are creating bottlenecks and making the river unnavigable.
The group discussed how best to go about getting everyone involved in the Water Agreement’s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to reach a consensus allowing greater flexibility in deciding when and how much flow can be implemented, and to monitor the success of the change over the next few years. The group agreed that the current situation has not been successful in achieving the original, lofty goals of LORP.
The agreed that the LORP has failed to meet the needs of water quality, water flow, environmental improvements, ranching needs, or recreational opportunities.
MOU Consultant Bill Platts with Ecosystem Science said the goal remains the same for the LORP, and that the adaptive management of monitoring the vegetation, river flows, and environment needed to result in a healthy habitat.
Yet he argued that, “If it were not for the restrictions in the current Water Agreement, we could save water and have a much better river.”
The Agreement calls for LADWP to maintain a consistent 40 cfs flow throughout the river, with no more than a maximum seasonal flow of 200 cfs. LADWP Watershed Resources Manager Brian Tillemans said that during the summer they have to release as much as 90 cfs to maintain that standard. Assistant Consultant Mark Hill noted that “the water flow was a legal requirement and not a biologic one,” adding further that “it isn’t working”, a point on which most in the room appeared to be in agreement.
Platt said that variable water flow would not have deleterious effect on the flow of the water going south, which currently moves along at approximately 41,000 acre-feet per year, noting that the Owens River is essentially a “desert river” and, unlike most other types of rivers, its river flows are “seasonally upside down from where they should be.”
The overabundance of tules was discussed and how best to control them whether through use of herbicides, drowning, or desiccation. Mechanical methods of removing tules are also an option. Just such an effective effort was led during the summer through the Inyo County Water Department by Freilich as an experiment using volunteers along approximately a 1-1/2 mile stretch of the Lower Owens.
While overgrown tules make it difficult to navigate the river, gain access for fishing, and slows the flow of water, there is no thought given to completely eradicating them as they provide a healthy fishery, clean the water, and provide nesting areas for local wildlife.
“The huge biomass created by the tules root system can greatly reduce the level of oxygen in the water and result in fish kills,” said Platts. This appears to be what happened in late-July of 2013, when seasonal summer storms created a “fish kill” along the Lower Owens.
Sally Manning, the Environmental Director with the Big Pine Tribe, said that she felt that the July “fish kill” was the result of “poor management by DWP” when water was diverted into the river channel after the Alabama Gates spillway. She thought the incident should be in the annual report. LADWP disputed the accusation, saying that problem was the result of low dissolved oxygen and high turbidity levels in the river, combined with the “unpredictability of summer storms.”
Retired Bureau of Land Management Hydrologist Terry Russi concluded that the group look at every project, including the LORP, as an experiment. “You have to realize that you will never reach all of the project goals,” he said.
To find a copy of the LORP Report with recommendations, visit the Inyo County Water Department’s website at www.inyowater.gov. The public comment period ends on Jan. 28. Send comments to the Water Department for inclusion in the final drafting of the annual LORP Report.
For more information, call Larry Freilich at (760) 878-0011 or send your questions and comments to his email address at LFreilich@inyocounty.us.