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Owens River Gorge Flows Back to Life With Trout : Water wars: Release of fish marks symbolic end to the bitter disputes between L.A. and the Owens Valley.

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Eight decades ago, as William Mulholland watched the first torrents of Owens River water cascade down to Los Angeles, the famed aqueduct builder uttered these words: “There it is. Take it.” On Friday, the fish took some of it back.

The rugged Owens River Gorge--rendered bone-dry for 40 years--sprang to life Friday morning with 10,000 tiny brown trout, a symbolic beginning of the end in the long, bitter saga of water disputes between Los Angeles and the distant Owens Valley.

The city recently agreed, albeit begrudgingly, to let some river water flow back through its natural gorge in a sort of belated restitution to the people of the Eastern Sierra. State and local officials celebrated Friday by freeing the fingerling trout, with the hope that eventually the spectacular canyon 10 miles north of Bishop--and 235 miles from Los Angeles--will thrive with fish and wildlife once again.

Along the banks of the Owens River, two local schoolchildren stood under a giant old willow and dumped six buckets of slippery trout into the cool, rushing water. An audience of about 50 people involved in long negotiations over the project watched fish swim down the gorge--once one of the West’s best trout streams--for the first time since 1953.

Reverberating off the canyon walls like a ghostly echo was the unspoken thought that Los Angeles wouldn’t be the booming, sprawling metropolis it is today if it weren’t for the draining of the Owens River.

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“This goes a long ways toward healing the old wounds,” said Mono County Dist. Atty. Stan Eller, who led three years of negotiations with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power over re-watering the gorge, which lies just inside his county. “When I drove up here today, I got chills seeing how green everything is now, when it was dry for so long. This is the way it ought to look.”

Just after the turn of the century, cunning--some say ruthless--land deals, fictionalized in the movie “Chinatown,” turned Los Angeles into the landlord of almost the entire Owens Valley in Inyo County. With construction of the city’s aqueduct to capture enormous amounts of mountain runoff, the Eastern Sierra’s orchards and ranches gradually withered away.

In 1953, 10 miles of the river gorge below Crowley Lake--once one of the West’s premier trout streams--was transformed into a dust bowl when Los Angeles captured the rushing water in a penstock, or huge pipeline, to generate hydroelectric power for the city.

Los Angeles has sacrificed part of its water rights to the river only after a long and acrimonious fight and a series of defeats in court. The transformation of the L.A. Department of Water and Power from the put-your-dukes-up reign of engineer Mulholland into a friendlier landlord has come slowly and subtly in the past 10 years.

“A decade ago, there was a mind-set at our department that we need to preciously guard all of our water. We had fought Inyo County tooth and nail for years,” said Jim Wickser, assistant general manager of the Department of Water and Power. “But societal values have changed, and our department shifted gears. It’s been a very definite shift, and we’re looking at partnerships now.”

By no account, though, has the saga ended. The squabbling is expected to continue for years over how much water Los Angeles should permanently return to the gorge, the rest of the Owens River and farther up the city’s aqueduct, to Mono Lake.

“It’s not over,” said Darryl Wong, an associate fishery biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game in Bishop. “There are 50 miles of the lower Owens River that are still dry.”

The re-watering of Owens River Gorge began literally by accident.

In 1991, a freak break in the giant penstock spilled water into a stretch parched for nearly four decades, prompting Mono County and the state Department of Fish and Game to renew negotiations with Los Angeles over the city’s water rights. On June 7, the DWP--facing the likelihood of losing a court battle to Mono County--signed a five-year interim agreement to re-water the gorge.

“Their reputation was to litigate, litigate and litigate,” Eller said, “so I expected to start this thing and my successor sometime in the 21st Century would have to end it. But they’ve got a little better attitude now toward their responsibilities in the Eastern Sierra.” A 41-year-old law that requires dam operators to maintain fish downstream was the key ammunition used by Mono County and the California Department of Fish and Game to force the issue.

Los Angeles won’t lose any water, but it will sacrifice up to 25% of the hydroelectric power harnessed in the gorge, at a replacement cost of $6 million a year. The city will make up its loss--which amounts to a fraction of 1% of its total power use--by increasing generation at its coal-burning plant in Utah.

DWP officials also will spend $12 million to modify its gorge power plants so that five times more water--about 80 cubic feet per second--can flow into the gorge by 1999.

“Right now you’re only seeing a small trickle,” Wickser said. “But when we get up to the full amount, we’ll be losing a good amount of power.”

When the Los Angeles Aqueduct was built in 1913, few people thought about the consequences to the environment or the quality of life in the sprawling Eastern Sierra. President Theodore Roosevelt declared that the water would be hundreds, if not thousands, of times more valuable to Los Angeles than to the Owens Valley.

“We have this opportunity now to bring back this great fishery. California deserves to have its streams in better shape,” said Boyd Gibbons, director of the state Department of Fish and Game, which directed the planting of the trout.

The historic resonance of Friday’s riverside ceremony was somewhat lost on the two children, ages 9 and 13, from Mammoth and Bishop as they freed the fish. Even their parents haven’t been alive long enough to recall the gorge untamed.

But old-timers such as Bob Gracey remember the canyon as a prized fishery, reached only by hardy hikers, inhabited by 20-pound trout.

“This was the premier trout stream in all of California,” said Gracey, chairman of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors.

A long-hidden natural resource, the Owens River Gorge was cut by volcanic lava thousands of years ago. Its 500-foot granite walls--a rock climber’s paradise--remain untouched.

“The gorge is an incredibly beautiful and different place,” said Jim Edmondson, executive director of Cal Trout, a fishing and environmental group striving to restore California rivers. “It still has high peaks, broad vistas, rock formations, and, as hard as the Bill Mulhollands of Los Angeles tried, they couldn’t dry it all up. They couldn’t blow it all away. It will rebound and it will rebound incredibly fast.”

The Department of Fish and Game’s stocking of 30,000 tiny trout over the next week is largely a symbolic gesture because the effort to revive the gorge--much less the rest of the Owens River--will take years.

“If someone went fishing tomorrow, they would be largely disappointed,” Edmondson said. “What they should do is rush out and get a calendar for 1998. Eventually we will see a trout fishery at least 80% good as what was there historically. Possibly better.”

There were no recriminations at Friday’s ceremony, just warm accolades and hopeful talk of future reconciliation.

“People are starting to check their guns at the door, so to speak,” said Daniel Paranick, chairman of the Mono County Board of Supervisors, who came from a family of four generations of Owens Valley ranchers, some of whom sold water rights to Los Angeles almost a century ago.

The comeback of the gorge, Paranick said, shows that urban demands for water and preservation of natural resources can both be accommodated.

“To find that balance is becoming more difficult every day,” he said. “This is a real step in the right direction.”

The gorge event Friday foreshadows an even bigger project that would restore 60 miles of the lower Owens River that have been largely dry for over 80 years.

Wickser said the re-watering of the river, which will cost the city $10 million and sacrifice a small amount of water, was done “in the interest of harmony in Inyo County and to make up for environmental impacts of the past.”

An agreement between the DWP and Inyo County, signed by both parties several years ago, is now awaiting final court approval as the participants debate how much water to restore.

Local leaders hope that reviving the gorge might help restore the area’s ailing economy, which is almost entirely dependent on recreation and tourism. Fish and Game officials said they hope the gorge will draw fishermen, hikers, campers, bird watchers and others.

Some say that a century from now, Los Angeles will be called the hero of the Owens Valley, not the villain, because without the aqueduct, urban development would have permanently scarred its natural resources.

“It’s been said,” Wong said, “that the only thing worse than the city of Los Angeles being here is if they weren’t here.”


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