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Out in the tules on the Lower Owens River

August 9, 2013

An estimated 65 percent of the 62-mile Lower Owens River is choked with tules, which, when cleared away, leave the waterway ripe for recreation and simple aesthetic enjoyment. The problem though, according to the county, is not the tules themselves but finding a method to keep them under control. Photo by Charles James

“Out in the tules” is the unique California (or Inyo County) slang equivalent for being “out in the boondocks” elsewhere in the country. Generally it refers to living somewhere that is “out of the way,” remote or isolated, and not a particularly good place to live.
However, for most living in Inyo and Mono counties, living “out in the tules” is just fine and it is a very good lifestyle choice.
Tules are one of California’s most ubiquitous wetland aquatic plants with 23 kinds of bulrush found around rivers, marshes, canals and bodies of fresh water alongside sedges (which resemble grasses or rushes), and cattails, which although not bulrushes are commonly lumped in with “tules.” These towering plants rise from ponds, reservoirs, ditches and rivers throughout the state, both in the cities and in rural and coastal areas.
It is estimated that as much as 65 percent of the 62-mile stretch of the Lower Owens River, which was reclaimed in 2006, is infested with tule vegetation, although infested is an inaccurate way to describe the issue. Tules are either a problem or a benefit, or both depending on the point of view … or purpose.
At the outset of the Lower Owens River Project, referred to simply as “LORP,” there was optimism for the reopening of the Lower Owens River both ecologically and economically. It was touted to become a revived ecosystem for both plant and animal life that ranged from willow and cottonwood forests to fish, frogs, waterfowl and wildlife. And in that regard, aside from the occasional fish kill incident, it has been a smashing success.
Unfortunately the hope for a local economic revival and opportunities have not been realized. The communities in the south end of Inyo County are heavily dependent on tourism, as is the rest of the county. They are still awaiting the promised economic and recreational opportunities of LORP fulfilled. Standing in the way are not the tules as much as finding a method to keep them under control and the river open for longer stretches.
“Opening up the river will open opportunities for kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding and floating, as well as offering access to new stretches of open water for fishing and wildlife viewing,” explained Larry Freilich, mitigation manager for the Inyo County Water Department.
Freilich’s explanation and enthusiasm for the project is understandable when one realizes that the outdoor recreation economy is big business. In the United States it is a $646 billion industry that provides 6.1 million American jobs. It also generates $39.9 billion dollars in federal tax revenue and another $39.7 billion dollars in state and local tax revenue. Hopes were high that Lower Owens River Project would see to it that similar economic benefits came to Inyo County.
This summer a new effort was put forth by the Inyo County Water Department with the help of AmeriCorps volunteer Michael Bunn. With Bunn’s help, the department spearheaded an effort to find better ways to mitigate the negative aspects of overgrown tule growth to improve recreational and nature viewing opportunities while safeguarding the positive aspects the tules provide to the environment.
“While serving with AmeriCorps and Inyo County,” Bunn said, “I have been truly impressed by the widespread support received for this project and I feel that with more support from the community, stewardship of the Lower Owens River has the potential to significantly benefit recreation, as well as expanding economic opportunities.”
Freilich, who has supervised Bunn’s efforts, adds, “Tules provide important habitat for fish and wildlife, and serve as sediment filters that improve water quality; their complete removal would be detrimental to the river ecosystem.”
There are many places along the river channel that are open. The main problems are the frequent dead tree limbs and logs, and the tule blockages that break the river into short runs. By removing the blockages from select areas, the channel will become accessible for kayaking, floating and other forms of recreation, while still maintaining a diverse habitat for aquatic wildlife.
What is the appeal of the Lower Owens River, the importance of a successful tule mitigation project, and the hoped-for result?
Visitors will find a river trail that takes them past ponded reaches that serve as a haven for bass and bluegill, into shaded tule-lined tunnels, where they will be surrounded by a chorus of birds. From the surprise of lush groves of wild mint to a vista of Mt. Whitney, each bend in the river presents a new scene.
It was noted how amazing it is to see extraordinary beauty like this already accessible and only limited by obstructions that can be removed now, and then, and maintained as open water by a small group of active volunteers: River Stewards. With the community’s help, the Owens River can be added to the mosaic of exceptional recreational attractions available in Inyo County.
“We hope to develop a group of River Stewards that will work on the river projects, keep an eye on things and educate the public,” said Owens River volunteer Michael Prather.
Recent volunteer work has proven to be effective, with half a dozen volunteers clearing one-third of a mile in a few hours during their last workday. Additionally, volunteers have enjoyed educational benefits from the project, gaining exposure to local history and environmental sciences, and then there’s the fun in this project.
“I’ve never had such a great time working so hard,” says Kelsey Francone of Big Pine, “It’s really a great group of people working in coordination together in a beautiful setting. It’s a blast!”
To become a volunteer river steward and to join in on the future workdays that are being planned, please contact Larry Freilich with the Inyo County Water Department at (760) 878-0011.

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