Owens River Water Trail: $500,000 closer to reality, but obstacles remain

Tule

Kind of gives a new meaning to “out in the tules,” doesn’t it? (Jim Burns)

Volunteers who worked on the nascent Owens River Water Trail in June woke up to some good news this week: The California Natural Resources Agency selected the site in Lone Pine for funding.

“Your fine contribution of labor and/or equipment and/or publicity was instrumental at helping secure the grant. All four of the Resources staff were able to personally experience the river and see your work—and they were impressed, ” wrote Larry Freilich, Mitigation Manager for the Inyo County Water Department, in an email.”The $500,000 award will be to open up the first designated river trail in California.”

But while supporters of the project are gratified to see funding slated to become a reality, there is still work to be completed,  namely negotiate site and construction agreements with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which has maintained a mostly antagonistic relationship with valley residents for more than 100 years. The Los Angeles Aqueduct opened in 1913, taking water from the valley some 230 miles to Los Angeles. That action drained the historic Owens Lake, and created “the largest single source of particulate matter air pollution in the country,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Lower Owens River Project, a joint project between Inyo Water and LADWP begun in 2006, began reinvigorating a 62-mile stretch of the Owens River, raising hopes of bringing kayaks, fishers and birders to the area. Although wildlife did return, the unintended consequence of more water was more tules, the thick, tall weeds that blossomed along many stretches of the Owens River. And, in effect, the tules strangled efforts to bring fresh outdoor tourism to the area.

The current river trail is an effort to revive those hopes.

In April, the Owens Valley Committee wrote on its Facebook page that “On page 8 of the 119 page Grant Application, one of the most important aspects of the proposed River Trail is articulated: ‘Creating an experience where the disabled can enjoy nature in a unique way is one of the primary goals of the project. Kayaking is one of the few sports that offer independent recreational opportunities for the handicapped.’

The post, based on this article in LARFF, continues “Almost a million Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have an officially recognized disability as the result of those conflicts. Millions more suffer with emotional scars. What an incredible opportunity this River Trail would be for our disabled veterans to enjoy nature. How dare DWP hold back its full support of this project!”

Freilich garnered support for his grant proposal not only locally, but also in Los Angeles. At least two separate kayaking groups donned wetsuits over two separate weekends in June to hack and slash away at the tules, creating a mini-kayak passage on the river.

Yet, if ecosystem can be reshaped fairly easily by volunteers efforts, the same cannot be said of the competing interests for Sierra water. Restoring water to the lower Owens River took 10 years, two environmental lawsuits and a court order fining LADWP $5,000 a day for missing deadlines. In all, penalties came to more than $3 million, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Exactly how long it will be before kayaking enthusiasts paddle down this water trail outside Lone Pine remains to be seen. A timeline for creating a water trail, presented at the California Trails and Greenways Conference in Lake Tahoe in 2013, shows:

  •  Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW) grant application process (8 months)
  •   DBW budgeting process (12 months)
  •   DBW grant contracting process (3 months)
  •   Grantee consultant selection and hiring process (4 months)
  •  Project California Environmental Quality Act permits and design process (18 months)
  •   Grantee bidding and awarding process (2 months)
  •   Project construction (6 months – more if confined to construction windows due to migratory or nesting concerns)
  • Total = 53 months

But the next step for Inyo County is to convince the LADWP of the feasibility of the project, and its ability to successfully shepherd the river trail from drawing board to reality.

“Inyo County has proposed a project on City of Los Angeles lands that provides paddle access to the Lower Owens River, “said James Annatto, manager for the L.A. Aqueduct, via email.” As the land owner of the project area, we have concerns as to the potential impacts related to the project.  The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is meeting with Inyo County to work through the land use and other issues.”

See you on the river, Jim Burns

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