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Long-troubled California river now thriving

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Long-troubled California river now thriving

Postby ERIC » Sat Aug 04, 2007 9:24 pm

Long-troubled California river now thriving
with help of nature, man

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times
http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/n ... ver03.html

INDEPENDENCE, Calif. — Healing rivers is Mark Hill's specialty. So when the ecologist visits a work in progress, he's prepared to paddle a long and sinuous route to assess the health of his patient.

Ecologist Mark Hill checks up on the changes
in the lower Owens River since water started
being diverted into it in December. He was
pleased to see thriving populations of fish and
birds and the rapid return of plant life, "all
good signs the river is coming on strong," he said.

In this case, his charge is the lower Owens River, a 62-mile-long stretch left essentially dry in 1913 after its flows of Sierra Nevada snowmelt were diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. After decades of bickering, water was directed back into the riverbed in December, beginning the largest river-restoration effort attempted in the West.

Ecologists knew the lower Owens would come back to life. But how fast would it rebuild itself? Which wildlife would appear first? Which plants?

Scientists have been surprised by some of the early answers. Hill recently took his first survey by kayak of the river. Hill, lead scientist for the Lower Owens River Project, stepped into an inflatable 16-foot kayak and soon was scooting through the channel that cuts across the Owens Valley.

Hill's daylong journey, which included visitors in a separate kayak, was marked by displays of birds, fish and insects setting up shop during the restored river's first summer. The clear water ran cold and, in this part of the channel, about knee deep.

Locals call this vast, arid region, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, "The Big Quiet." The only sounds were the slosh of waves along the hulls, the dip of paddle blades and the occasional melodic konk-la-ree of red-winged blackbirds nesting in bulrushes.

"Wow! Look at that," Hill said, nodding toward a cloud of baby largemouth bass — evidence of the species' first spawn in the revived river system — wafting through a tangle of water lilies.

Nearby, carp and Owens River suckers, some of them more than a foot long, grazed amid submerged pastures of moss that, in turn, fed on nutrients in the channel that for decades "had more cow poop than water in it," Hill said.

Great blue herons and kingfishers plucked fish from myriad shallow inlets created by the new flows. At dusk, bank swallows caught flying insects.

The water, which comes from the upper Owens River, began its journey high in the Sierra Nevada. Most water from the upper Owens continues to pour into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, but some now heads into the lower Owens and travels 62 miles to Owens Lake, which was left dry after the aqueduct opened in 1913.

The original river channel was formed 25,000 to 50,000 years ago, and the water flowed in torrents as fast as 3,000 cubic feet a second. The water now courses at a carefully controlled rate of about 40 cubic feet a second.

When the diversion project began Dec. 6, it took about 19 days for the water to arrive at the northern end of Owens Lake. When the water reaches the lake, it is pumped back into the aqueduct to head for Los Angeles.

Fertile ground

The lower Owens River can't be called pristine. For nearly 100 years, the riverbed was trampled by cattle, overgrown with invasive plants and trees, and mostly dry, save for a few spring-fed ponds. Paradoxically, these conditions provide benefits that will help in the channel's recovery.

The manure-fed moss provides food for unexpectedly vigorous populations of fish, which have begun venturing out beyond the spring-fed ponds. Gravel in the riverbed provides an ideal habitat for diatoms, beautiful microscopic algae and early links in the food chain.

Tree stumps, eyesores when the channel was dry, offer shelter for young fish or redirect currents, which sometimes gouge the riverbed.

Mathematical simulations predicted the water would run 2 to 4 feet deep, depending on the width of the channel. But the redirected currents are digging out sections 6 to 10 feet deep in places.

"We didn't expect to see this much velocity in the river," Hill said. "We didn't expect to see this much clarity in the river. We didn't expect to see this many deep holes in the river."

Groundwater has recharged and risen faster than anticipated and oxygen levels remain high, creating hundreds of channels and ponds that will soon become ideal habitat for waterfowl and fish. "All good signs the river is coming on strong," Hill said.

Later this year, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power plans to release pulses of water at rates of 200 cubic feet a second to mimic annual flood cycles and distribute willow seeds. If all goes according to plan, within a decade, willows will cloak the banks, creating shady canopies over pools that Hill predicted would be "prime bass and catfish real estate."

Make way for nature

The arrival of some species means the departure of others. When willows and cottonwoods shade parts of the river, sun-hungry moss will disappear from those areas. Some desert shrubs, such as saltbrush and bitter weed, are dying because they don't like the high water table.

"We're witnessing the start of a recovery that will occur in stages in what has become an enormous outdoor laboratory for river restoration," Hill said.

Most of the restoration work falls to Mother Nature. There are no plans to stock the waterway with fish or haul in new plants. In five to seven years, larger species, such as elk and deer and mountain lion, will establish themselves along the river.

After exploring six miles of the river, Hill dragged his kayak onto a sandy shoal where he was greeted by William Platts, 79, his associate and mentor at Ecosystem Sciences Foundation, a Boise, Idaho, firm specializing in the development of river-restoration and watershed-management programs.

Watching the river flow, Platts smiled.

"It's working good, Mark," he said. "This will be a better river than it was before. ... It took a long time to get this far. All we have to do now is get out of nature's way."
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Postby SteveB » Mon Aug 13, 2007 1:07 pm

Another great story, Eric! Thanks for posting it!
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Postby mountaineer » Fri Aug 17, 2007 6:55 pm

Is any of the water going to stay in Owens Lake? If so, the possibilities for desert reflection photography will increase immensely in the area.
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Postby SSSdave » Fri Aug 17, 2007 8:00 pm

Glad to hear the early results of this important project. I've read stories that before LADWP blocked the creeks, there were rather impressive areas of riparian forest along some of those streams that simply died off into the semi desert it became. Quite a lot of those lands became spring only cow pie and sheep dip pastures that were have that severely beat up sage brush look with turds all about. It would be nice if a decade or so, if the public had access to some of the actual lands along the lower river. ...David
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