10/5/2003 OVC applies for America's Most Endangered Rivers status for Lower Owens River
American Rivers

America's Most Endangered Rivers of 2004
Nomination Form


Name of River: Lower Owens River (from the Los Angeles Aqueduct intake to Owens Lake; 62 miles)
Location: Inyo County, California (river lies in eastern Sierra and western edge of the Great Basin, close to the eastern base of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states.)
Nominating Group: The Owens Valley Committee
Contact Persons: Michael Prather and Ceal Klingler
Address: P.O. Drawer D, Lone Pine, CA 93545
Phone: 760.876.5807 Fax: 760.876.1845



The 62-mile long Lower Owens River twists through the Owens Valley between the Sierra Nevada and the White-Inyo Mountains in eastern California. Before 1913, the river collected surface water and snowmelt from surrounding mountain ranges and flowed into 110-square-mile Owens Lake. Together, the river and the lake provided irrigation water for aboriginal Paiutes, farmers and ranchers, food and refuge for millions of migrating waterfowl, and habitat for many endemic species of plants and animals.
In 1913 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) diverted the river's flow in order to supply water to Los Angeles. This left the lower reaches of the Owens River--and consequently the lake--dry or nearly so. The river below the diversion is the "Lower Owens River." It is an Audubon Important Bird Area (IBA) that will be enhanced greatly if and when flows begin and the riparian habitat recovers. Restoration of 62 miles of riparian habitat is vital in California (a state of 35 million people and growing), where 90% of that habitat has been lost .
In 1997, renewed hope for the Lower Owens River emerged after 25 years of legal battles. As partial mitigation for groundwater pumping impacts LADWP agreed to work with Inyo County to restore a steady (not intermittent) flow to all 62 miles of the Lower Owens River. The agreed-upon deadline of June 13, 2003 for beginning flows has been missed due to unending delay and obstruction by LADWP -- water delayed is money saved from their perspective. As it now stands steady flows may begin in 2005 if public sentiment can be garnered. The Lower Owens River has become a symbol of western water wars and a test case for water negotiation and environmental remediation in the west.


- Project delays

The Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the Lower Owens River Project (LORP) may be released in the spring of 2004. It will certainly be challenged in court for its numerous inadequacies. Even if the FEIR is speedily accepted, flows probably will not begin until at least 2005, two years after the original deadline and nearly 35 years after unmitigated groundwater pumping damage began in the Owens Valley. LADWP benefits monetarily from every dispute, delay or reduction in water released; every drop of water saved is a drop of water sold.

- Poor monitoring and adaptive management plan and poor funding

The success of the LORP depends explicitly on monitoring and adaptive management. Changes in riparian habitat should affect management decisions such as amount of water released, where grazing occurs, etc. Unfortunately, the draft plan for the LORP mandates only infrequent monitoring, sets no thresholds or triggers for taking action if negative changes or even disasters are detected, and does not delineate how management will adapt to changes. Worse, the plan provides for monitoring only "to the extent that funding is available"--and funding, according to the plan, may not be available. Adaptive management measures such as control of non-native beaver, continuing eradication of tamarisk (salt cedar) and reasonable channel work for flows also lack full funding, although those measures are essential to the restoration of the river.

- Dispute resolution process rewards LADWP delays

In a project of this size, disputes are certain, particularly because no adaptive management standards or thresholds have been set. However, the LORP plan has no final process for resolving a dispute. Consequently, if LADWP and Inyo County disagree about whether a problem exists (as they have in the past) or if they disagree about whether anything should be done (as they have before), no action is required and LADWP benefits from money and water saved by the dispute.

- Lower volume flows than those that created Owens River Delta wetlands

The draft project's flow component would reduce water flows to the Owens River Delta (the most biologically productive portion of the Lower Owens River) and to the delta's brine pool transition area, which currently provides food and habitat to a wide variety of shorebirds and waterfowl. If reduced water flows damage the river delta, as they likely will, it's possible no one will record the change (inadequate monitoring); that if it's recorded no one will see it as a problem (no triggers or thresholds); and that if it's declared a problem no one will do anything about it (no dispute resolution).

- Lack of public awareness

The Owens Valley exemplifies twentieth century colonial water exploitation, and it stands as a warning to all other areas of California. Los Angeles has a population of millions of people, yet few are aware that their city owns and manages more than 200,000 acres in the Owens Valley (200 miles north). Without pressure from Los Angeles' voting public and correspondingly anxious elected officials, LADWP has little motivation to finish the Lower Owens River Project, much less finish it well.


Currently the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and Inyo County are jointly responding to comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the Lower Owens River Project. The Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the Lower Owens River Project (LORP) is scheduled to be released by LADWP to the public in December 2003. Certification of that document by the LADWP Board of Commissioners is required for base flows to begin.The December 2003 date is optimistic and will probably be missed; the document will more likely come out in the spring of 2004 or even summer.
The Owens Valley Committee and the Sierra Club anticipate filing suit over the adequacy of the FEIR. There will be some measure of delay due to this action. However, an effort to negotiate a settlement to expedite matters and begin water flowing can be expected.
Many, but not enough forces in Los Angeles would like to see this project finally happen. Therefore, public pressure on LADWP and the Los Angeles City Council after release of the FEIR will be critical for the most favorable outcome. Given that Los Angeles is one of the largest media markets in the world, any publicity about the project and its potential will be extremely helpful and timely.
There is a strong chance that the FEIR will be out AFTER the 2004 America's Most Endangered Rivers report. If so, and if the Lower Owens River is selected as an endangered river, much needed publicity will be brought to bear on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the City of Los Angeles to issue an adequate environmental document for the Lower Owens River Project.
With 62 miles of the Lower Owens River slated for restoration the LADWP must be urged by the citizens of Los Angeles and the rest of the nation to finish the Lower Owens River Project and finish it well. "Remember the Owens Valley" is a rallying cry that everyone can understand. Let's remember it for a good reason today and not for the destructive horrors that it conjures from the past.


(References and Endnotes for section II follow)

Are you willing to hold or participate in a news event should your river be selected?
Yes__X__ No____

Can you provide media expertise or personnel? Yes_X__ No____


Chalfant, W.A. 1975. The Story of Inyo. Bishop, California: Chalfant Press.

California State Lands Commission. 2003. Subject: Draft Environmental
Impact Report/Statement (DEIR/S), Lower Owens River Project (LORP),
November 1, 2002. Comments submitted to Clarence Martin, Los
Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and to Gail Louis, U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) January 14, 2003. Sacramento,

City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. 2003. LA Aqueduct: Eastern Sierra Recreation. Information downloaded September 26, 2003 from web page:

City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, County of Inyo, California Department of Fish and Game, California State Lands Commission, Sierra Club, Owens Valley Committee, and Carla Scheidlinger. 1997. Memorandum of Understanding between the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the County of Inyo, the California Department of Fish and Game, the California State Lands Commission, the Sierra Club, the Owens Valley Committee, and Carla Scheidlinger. Inyo County, California. Downloaded September 25, 2003 from .

City of Los Angeles, Department of Water and Power (LADWP), U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Inyo County Water
Department, County of Inyo. 2002. Draft Environmental Impact Report and
Environmental Impact Statement - Lower Owens River Project. Inyo
County, California. SCH#2000011075

Owens Valley Committee. 2003. Comments on Draft EIR/EIS for the
Lower Owens River Project. Comments submitted to Clarence Martin, Los
Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) January 14, 2003. Inyo
County, California. (Note: These and other agencies' comments are downloadable from

Reisner, M. 1993. Cadillac Desert. New York, New York: Penguin Books.

Riparian Habitat Joint Venture. 2001. Anne Chrisney, coordinator. Information downloaded September 28, 2003 from web page: .

Sharp, R.P. & Glazner, A.F. 1997. Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and
Owens Valley. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company.

United States Census Bureau. 2001. State and County Quickfacts: California. Information downloaded September 28, 2003 from web page:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2002. February 22 letter from
Janet Parrish, Region IX Monitoring and Assessment Office, San
Francisco, to Jerry Gewe, Assistant General Manager - Water, Los
Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Walton, J. 1993. Western Times and Water Wars. Berkeley, California:
University of California Press.

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