Mike Prather is an environmental activist and conservationist who has advocated for the rewatering of Owens Lake and the Lower Owens River for decades. Mike was instrumental in the formation the Owens Valley Committee (OVC) and has served as its past president. Additionally, he is a member of both the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society and the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter, having served as a past president of the former.
The wise words, “Water is life”, are most vividly displayed in deserts where water is rare. The distance from a flowing channel with emergent vegetation, fish and amphibians to a desert scrub plant community may be only a stone’s throw away. A raven gliding overhead sees thin green lines across the dry landscape – stark contrasts. Although narrow and limited, these habitats have high species diversity and rich habitats.
The Owens River is born from snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada of California over 100 miles north of Owens Lake, the river’s terminus. Its flow has been altered by dams, agriculture and demands of urban centers for water. Future impacts from climate change are not clear. The river’s final 62 miles of channel were cut off and dried in 1913 as Los Angeles sent precious water south to quench the growing city’s thirst. Owens Lake slowly disappeared. Its 110 square miles of critical migratory bird habitat nestled below mountains rising to over 14,000 feet lost.
But the lower Owens River returned in 2006, albeit, a smaller version of its former self. The 62 miles destroyed in 1913 were once again carrying life thanks to a legal settlement between Los Angeles and Inyo County. Needless to say, this litigation was born of fights over water, especially massive groundwater pumping by Los Angeles to fill theirsecond aqueduct that was completed in 1969. The parties agreed to improve management of groundwater pumping and to create various mitigations for past damage. The re-watering of the lower Owens River is the centerpiece of this mitigation effort. Los Angeles was promised a reliable amount of Eastern Sierra water and Inyo County was promised no more environmental impacts.
With the return of water to the river, visions of paddling its meandering riparian course soon followed. The Owens River Water Trail, conceived by Inyo County, would offer 6 miles of river winding through carved Ice Age Owens Lake sediments that rise sharply as bluffs above the floodplain. The water trail is immediately east of Lone Pine in the southern Owens Valley where paddling opportunities are mostly lacking. It represents only 10% of the re-watered river. Willow trees, wild roses, alkali meadows, wetlands, birds and other wildlife are already thriving.
Owens River Water Trail’s primary goal is to offer paddling recreation to people of all abilities and experience. It is set in the southern Owens Valley, an underserved ‘backwater’ where human-powered boating is extremely limited. The low flow volume and gentle current offer safety. Infrastructure for launching and take out are planned for use by disabled paddlers. Their boats would be placed in a carrier and travel along rails into and out of the water.
Nature is a healer. The Owens River Water Trail has major funding aimed to serve wounded warriors and all others who would spend time on the water in a beautiful, natural setting without roads, power lines and other distractions of our modern societies. Natural sounds of red-winged blackbirds and coyotes would provide ambience. “This trail will offer powerful healing to veterans, who suffer the highest suicide rates in our nation,” Randy Short, veteran and Owens Valley resident, speaking passionately before the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Board of Commissioners. Moments later LADWP’s Senior Manager, Marty Adams, added, “This will be my personal project. This is for people who have served our country.”
But, as with many things involving the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, things are seldom as simple as they appear. The landowner of the floodplain along the river is the City of Los Angeles and a 20 year lease for Inyo to work on the LADWP land is required for the project work to begin. On top of that, Inyo County can’t access grant funding without this lease from Los Angeles. Currently LADWP will not give a lease to Inyo County until the ORWT Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is completed and certified by the Inyo County Board of Supervisors. Inyo County has the decision making power to certify the EIR, but the comments by LADWP addressing the draft EIR raise hurdles making it difficult to believe that Los Angeles favors the project after all. Inyo County is free to proceed and certify the EIR after responding to all comments from LADWP, but it risks legal action from the City over the adequacy of the EIR. LADWP could also simple deny giving Inyo a 20 year lease using any excuse and let the clock run out. Inyo may lose all grant funding if deadlines are not met.
In Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti and LADWP Board of Commissioners Chair Mel Levine need to hear reasoned voices asking for the Owens River Water Trail to be competed as planned. Los Angeles must do all that is necessary to find solutions and overcome any hurdles. The historic cry of, “Remember the Owens Valley,” is still being heard. Swallows skim the still water’s surface. They too are listening.