Track 12: Brian Tillemans, LADWP

The $39-million Lower Owens River Project (LORP) begun in 2006 is a 62-mile long river restoration project covering 77,657 acres in the Owens Valley. The project is the largest of its kind ever attempted in the United States. The goal stated for this legally mandated project was to rewater the formally dry river channel and the adjacent floodplain that was consequently drained after the city diverted natural course of the Owens River into the newly constructed Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913.

The LORP is one of the mitigation projects outlined in the 1991 Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) that was legally required by the 1997 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City of Los Angeles, Inyo County, LADWP, the California Department of Fish and Game, the State Lands Commission, the Sierra Club, and the Owens Valley Committee. The LORP is a legally binding compensation meant to offset ecological damage caused by excessive groundwater pumping instigated by LADWP from 1970-1990. After years of political bickering during a drawn out series of lawsuits brought on by various entities, the LORP officially commenced on December 6th, 2006 bringing water to the river which had been essentially waterless for 93 years.[1]

 “The goal of the LORP is the establishment of a healthy, functioning Lower Owens riverine-riparian ecosystem, and the establishment of healthy, functioning ecosystems in the other physical features of the LORP, for the benefit of biodiversity and Threatened and Endangered Species, while providing for the continuation of sustainable uses including recreation, livestock grazing, agriculture, and other activities.” [2]

The 1997 MOU required that the LADWP establish “a permanent base flow of 40 cubic feet per second in the river channel and higher seasonal habitat flows” for two waterfowl and shorebird riparian habitat areas including the 20,400-acre Blackrock Waterfowl Management Area and the Owens River Delta Habitat Area plus several off-river lakes and ponds.[3] Water received at the Owens Lake Delta located at the north end of the lake is used for a separate federally mandated air pollution mitigation project managed by LADWP to control dust storms on the dry lakebed. Any excess water not used at the lake is pumped back into the Los Angeles Aqueduct at a pumping station located at the delta.

The LORP has been successful in its goal to enhance the fishery, create riparian and marsh habitat, and promote recreational opportunities such as fishing and canoeing. In 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that, “there are 4,000 largemouth bass and 2,000 bluegill per mile, and 108 species of birds, 41 of them new to the area.”[4]

There have been obstacles, however, including dealing with non-native resident beavers who enjoy dining on young seedlings of willow and cottonwood that, in turn, fail to establish and will provide the deciduous riparian habitat necessary for complete restoration. The LADWP biologists overseeing the LORP are working on ways to either control or eliminate the beaver. Free-range cattle present their own set of control issues as grazing cows contaminate and trample delicate stream vegetation. Tules (a species of native California bulrushes and other similar vegetation) with other non-natives such as salt cedar, also wreck havoc with the preferred habitat model. Overgrown tules and salt cedar obstruct ideal stream flows and strangle the river if allowed to dominate the riparian corridor and channels.

Blackrock Spring Controversy

Mary DeDecker, founder of the Bristlecone Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) singled out the naturally flowing Little Black Rock Spring as, “a prime habitat, a center of life where unusual species flourished and the aesthetic beauty was superb.”[5]

Located about twelve miles north of Independence, the original spring flowed at about 8,000 acre feet per year (a.f./yr) and once supported a rich and diverse ecosystem of alkali marsh and meadow, saltbrush scrub, and various mountain species including Intermountain Bird’s Beak (Cordylanthus ramosous). In 1941, the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) established a fish hatchery just south of the Blackrock site and diverted water from the spring for hatchery operations. After servicing the hatchery, the water flows directly into the Los Angeles Aqueduct nearby—essentially at no loss for the utility.

Beginning in the early 1970s, LADWP increased pumping in the Blackrock area to fill its newly constructed second aqueduct. Consequently, the Little Black Rock Spring diminished and eventually stopped flowing entirely, in turn destroying the fragile ecosystem it had once supported over hundreds of acres to the south and west of the original spring.

To compensate for the loss of spring flow to the hatchery, the LADWP sited two wells nearby to provide replacement water. In addition, LADWP increased pumping from 8,000 a.f./yr to 13,000 a.f./yr.—nearly double the springs natural flow.[6] The increased pumping dropped the water table so low that groundwater dependent alkali meadow began to be quickly replaced by invasive shrub species, leading to desertification.[7] Today, groundwater pumping at Blackrock accounts for 40 to 60 percent of all pumping occurring in the valley.

Bristlecone Chapter CNPS botanist, Daniel Pritchett has been monitoring sites at Blackrock since 1987 as established in the Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA). His findings show drastic changes between two specific sites; one adequately supported with groundwater and one without—the difference in habitats is staggering. Although LADWP mitigation projects legally mandated through the LTWA compensate for these losses, the two wells serving the fishery are exempted.

Owens Valley Committee (OVC) and other entities including the Big Pine Tribe are legally involved in the issue. OVC’s lawsuit against the Department of Fish and Game (DFG), which operates the hatcheries asks for LADWP to reduce pumping in the Blackrock area back to the natural historic spring flow rate average of 8,000 a.f./yr in an effort to bring back rare meadow habitat but continue to provide enough water necessary to optimally operate the fish hatchery.[8] OVC and DFG reached a settlement in the lawsuit in December 2011.

Besides the Blackrock Hatchery there are two other others in Owens Valley; the historic Mt. Whitney Hatchery (currently closed) near Independence and the Fish Springs Hatchery, just south of Big Pine. Statewide, sports fishing brings in $3 billion in revenue a year.

POI: Blackrock Springs Hatchery
Visitors are welcome to visit the fish hatchery during regular business hours. Exit east onto Coloseum Road aka Blackrock Springs Road. The hatchery is approximately 1 mile north of the exit and 6.5 miles north of Independence, CA.

Latitude: 36.928149°
Longitude: -118.232033°

POI: Lower Owens River Project
There are various LORP recreational areas and wildlife viewing areas located throughout Owens Valley. Click here for the LORP recreational map or visit the Inyo County LORP website to download a higher detailed version.

[1] Initial LORP restoration was delayed twice by LADWP until an Inyo County Superior Court Judge ordered in 2005 that the city of Los Angeles was required to commence flows to the river by 2007 or their water exports through the second aqueduct would be stopped altogether. The city was fined $5000 a day until the compliance was met.
[2] The published stated goal of the 1997 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City of Los Angeles, Inyo County, LADWP, the California Department of Fish and Game, the State Lands Commission, the Sierra Club, and the Owens Valley Committee.
[3] Inyo County Water Department website (LORP): Last accessed 9/15/12.
[4] Louis Sahagun, Tule vegetation infests Lower Owens River,” Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2011.
[5] Mary DeDecker, “The Death of a Spring,” History of Water: Eastern Sierra Nevada,, Owens Valley, White-Inyo Mountains. See: OVC Blackrock website page. Note that DeDecker refers to the historic spring as Little Black Rock Spring, where as today the area/spring is called Blackrock.
[6] Mike Bodine, “Blackrock settlement means less pumping,” The Inyo Register, January 5, 2012.
[7] Generally, the alkali meadow habitat found within the Owens Valley relies on  shallow groundwater to survive. In contrast, grasslands, which are not naturally present in Owens Valley, are precipitation dependent. Because Owens Valley is a rain-shadow desert it receives very little rainfall annually.
[8] In addition, OVC and the Big Pine Tribe want pumping at the Fish Springs Hatchery just outside of Big Pine, CA reduced to historic flow rates. Records show that between 1936 and 1959, the average natural flow for Fish Springs was 16,400 a.f./yr. LADWP increased pumping to 24,000 a.f./yr beginning in 1970. See note 7 for source.

Special thanks to NPR affiliate, Carrie Kahn for providing the Antonio Villaraigosa recording at the opening of this track. Listen to Kahn’s original NPR Morning Addition broadcast from December 7, 2006; “L.A. Returns Water to the Owens Valley”.

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