The message delivered at the Lower Owens River Project update Monday morning was clear: the health of the Lower Owens River is in jeopardy and changes need to be made and made quickly.
The adaptive management recommendations outlined by Platts Consulting are relatively simple: abandon the flow restrictions codified in the Long Term Water Agreement to first improve the water quality and then to control the tulles. According to consultant Mark Hill, there’s enough water in the system and enough time to make the changes by spring. The real issue is how to get all the parties to the Memorandum of Understanding on the same page in time. Those parties include Inyo County, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Sierra Club, Owens Valley Committee, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California State Lands Commission and an individual, Carla Scheidlinger.
Of the 40-plus people in attendance in LADWP’s conference room, most agreed that the changes were necessary. As consultant Bill Platts put it, “if not for the restrictions, we would have saved water and had a better river.”
At issue is the mandate to maintain a consistent 40 cfs flow in all reaches of the river with a maximum seasonal flow of 200 cfs. According to LADWP Watershed Resources Manager Brian Tillemans, to maintain that flow during the summer, the department has to release as much as 90 cfs at the top. That release, said Hill, is a legal requirement, not a biological requirement, and it isn’t working.
What Platts Consulting is recommending is a variable pulse flow that would not increase the roughly 41,000 acre-feet of water that goes down the LORP each year, just redistribute it. According to Hill, the Owens River flows are seasonally upside down from where they should be.
Redistribution of the river’s flow would improve the water quality, impaired by what Platt described as “huge tonage” of biomass that reduces oxygen levels in the water. A different flow schedule would also help manage the tulles.
Retired Bureau of Land Management Hydrologist Terry Russi had a word of advice toward the end of the two-hour meeting. “Look at every project as an experiment,” he said. “And realize you’re never going to reach all the project goals.”
The consultants, LADWP and Inyo County Water Department continued Monday with technical meetings.
The LORP report and recommendations are available at www.inyowater.gov . The public comment period ends Jan. 28.