5/23/2007 A first descent: Lower Owens floats their boats
In a celebration of the river's renewed existence, nine people kayaked and canoed approximately the northmost five miles of the Lower Owens this April in what was likely the first boat descent in nearly a century.

Until a rewatering ceremony December 6, 2006, the southern sixty miles of the Owens River had been mostly a memory and an empty riverbed since 1913, when Los Angeles diverted the river into the first Los Angeles aqueduct. Plans for a river resurrection surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s, when Los Angeles lost a series of court battles over impacts to the Owens Valley from excessive groundwater pumping and from exports via a second aqueduct. Eventually the city agreed to partly restore the Lower Owens River as partial mitigation for thirty years of groundwater pumping damage, but the project stalled in its planning stages.

In 2005, a judge ordered Los Angeles to, among other measures, begin flows to the river by January 2007 or risk losing the use of its second Owens Valley aqueduct. Flows began in winter 2006, and Los Angeles announced in February 2007 that flows had reached required levels throughout the river. Speculation about floating the river inevitably followed--or rather, led.

The river explorers met obstacles, of course: chain link fence, tules, tamarisk stumps. But they persevered.

“In some cases we could squeeze by, next to a bank, either paddling with great difficulty or walking on the bottom and pulling the boats,” wrote Frank Colver, an Owens Valley Committee member, in a recent account of the descent. “....In many cases the water was so deep where we needed to push a path through the tules that we could not use our feet on the bottom for traction. Instead, we would sort of lie down or walk on our knees being supported by the floating refuse of dead tules.”

Colver is fairly certain he and other expedition members--Gary, Karla, and Jessamyn Peebles; Nathan and Mike Piehl; Mel Herlin; Sylvia Stevenson; and Russ Brown--can claim the title of first descent of the newly restored river. “We did not see any evidence of anyone having broken a boat path through the tules,” he wrote. “It looked untouched (it doesn’t any longer).”

The trip breaks no records for longest, most difficult, or most remote. No one will sing love songs to the river's rapids, or extoll any holes, plunge pools, or dangerous deviousness--oxbows notwithstanding. What makes this river trip special is not the character of the river's water; it's the simple presence of water.

“It was a thrill for me to float over the new gauging station just above Black Rock Road," Colver wrote. "Last December 7 I walked over to it--[it was] only a trickle then--and stood there wondering if I would ever be able to find myself floating over it.”

The group took out at the east bank of the river at Black Rock Road, leaving further exploration for a time when the channel is less choked with vegetation.

For a while, the Lower Owens River Project wouldn't float. Now it does.

--Ceal Klingler
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