Nearly a century after Los Angeles' water demands reduced it to a parched wisp of a river, a 62-mile-stretch of the Lower Owens is about to make a comeback in one of the most ambitious river restoration efforts ever attempted.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, fulfilling a long-delayed commitment, plans to put water back into the river on Dec. 6 in hopes of transforming its puddles and ponds into a biological superhighway of trees, fish, waterfowl, songbirds, elk and deer.
With the push of a button, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is to open the clamshell-shaped jaws of a specially constructed automated steel gate about 235 miles north of the city, replenishing the river with its first appreciable flows of water since 1913.
"Let the water flow, baby," said Villaraigosa. "This is an unprecedented commitment on the part of our city to improving the environment and signifies a rebirth and renewal of an important resource."
The Owens River, fed by Sierra runoff, flows for about 100 miles before reaching the spot where the Dec. 6 ceremony will take place.
Most river water will continue to stream into the intake of the Los Angeles Aqueduct; some will pour through the steel gate and into the river channel.
The redirected water will surge 62 miles south to new storage ponds at the north end of dry Owens Lake. There, four newly installed 600-horsepower pumps will lift it and send it into the aqueduct and on its way to Southern California.
The river project will not restore the lake. Because water is being returned to the aqueduct, the project is not expected to affect Los Angeles' water supply nor add additional costs to consumers.
Owens Valley residents say it can't happen soon enough.
Business leaders believe the revived river will attract more tourists to the struggling towns that dot the valley, which runs between the 14,000-foot-elevation walls of the Sierra Nevada and the White-Inyo Mountains.
"Inyo County is in bad shape financially," said Kathleen New, Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce president. "So we plan to get very creative with our marketing programs to maximize what happens on the Lower Owens from here on out.
"After all," she added, "where else can you see wild mink and yellow-billed cuckoos?"
Sports enthusiasts and environmentalists are already drafting guide maps for miles of hiking trails, bird-watching hot spots, bass-fishing tournaments and a kayaking experience they are calling the "the long glide" because the river's carefully controlled flows will be free of rapids and waterfalls.
The renewed river is to flow year-round and, depending on the width of the channel, range in depth from 2 to 4 feet. It generally will drift along at slightly less than 1 mph, about the speed of a leisurely stroll. It will pick up the pace in steeper, deeper narrows.
Today, the river channel exists as a series of seasonally flooded pastures and murky shallow ponds fed by springs and agricultural runoff. Most are choked with cattails. Scattered clumps of cottonwoods clinging to shoulders of land are all that remain of once robust stream-side forests.
To enrich the habitat, the DWP plans to match hydraulics with climate and vegetation cycles to create a permanent annual base flow of 40 cubic feet per second that will surge when trees are pumping out seeds.
With a goal of helping more water push through habitat areas, the DWP has already replaced or repaired small spill gates, reshaped old ditches that feed water to wetlands and removed obstructions, including beaver dams.
If all goes according to plan, within five years the river will be an oasis for wild things, featuring a rich warm-water habitat for fish, crawfish and frogs, edged by galleries of cottonwood, willow and birch trees up to 25 feet tall, according to DWP stream ecologist Brian Tillemans.
Standing on the intake's catwalk overlooking the start of the Lower Owens channel, Tillemans said, "The water released on Dec. 6 will take roughly 19 days to reach the northern end of dry Owens Lake.
"After that," he said, "it won't take too long before the river finds its own way again and we see a die-off of desert shrubs, such as salt brush and rabbit brush, which can't handle a high water table."
Officials have no plans to stock the river with fish. They say the bass, catfish and bluegill already in the ponds are expected to multiply once they are loose in the channel, and other animals will find their way to the river as a forest and meadows sprout up along its length.
Barring unforeseen glitches, Richard Cervantes, an Inyo County supervisor, is looking forward to excellent bass and catfish fishing.
At sunup on a recent frosty weekday morning, Cervantes, 71, strode to a favorite fishing hole beside the crumbling ruins of a train trestle that served the region back when the surrounding hills were crawling with prospectors.
Casting a streamer into a murky pond, he smiled and said, "All the ugly things going on in the world don't really matter much when you're out here fishing on the wild side of California.
"The benefits people are going to get from a healthy river running through these wide-open vistas will be good for the spirit and the soul," he said. "No matter where you go, you won't find any signs that say, 'Keep out.' "
Los Angeles' unquenchable thirst has been hard on the Owens Valley, where residents still grumble about how, in the early 1900s, the city used agents to pose as farmers and ranchers to buy land and water rights in the valley. The city then built dams, diversions and groundwater pumps that starved local springs and wetlands, turning the 110-square-mile Owens Lake into an acrid dust bowl.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct and the so-called Second Los Angeles Aqueduct, built here in 1970, deliver about 430 million gallons of water a day to the city.
The DWP has a long history of delays in correcting the environmental damage it has caused in the valley. In previous long legal battles in the Eastern Sierra, the agency had to give up significant amounts of water to stabilize water levels in Mono Lake and to re-water parts of Owens Lake to reduce dust storms.
Three weeks ago, the DWP announced a proposed agreement to spend $105 million on berms to reduce dust pollution from the Owens Lake bed.
The DWP contends that the restoration of the Lower Owens marks the start of a new era of cooperation between the city and valley communities. The agency is one of the region's largest employers and a resource for cattle ranchers, who lease most of the 300,000 acres DWP controls here for pasture.
Some Owens Valley residents, however, were cautious in their optimism about the project.
"All is not instantly rosy," said Benett Kessler, owner of KDAY-FM radio in Bishop and an investigative journalist who has been publicly critical of the DWP since 1975. She noted that the DWP missed several court-imposed deadlines to finish the river restoration project.
"The mayor wants us to believe that Los Angeles is the most environmentally sensitive city in the West," she said. "But how can you call it environmentally sensitive if it takes a court order for it to do anything positive?
"Considering the DWP's track record," she added, "I think we have to see them in action before we come to any conclusions."
On latimes.com Video presentation
See a web video package at latimes.com/owensriver.