The largest river restoration ever attempted in the West — intended to support a cornucopia of wildlife and outdoor activities — has left a 62-mile stretch of the Lower Owens so overrun with cattails, cane and bulrushes that it may take decades to bring them under control.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa turned a knob in 2006 that opened a diversion dam gate about 235 miles north of the city, putting water back into a river essentially left dry after its flows of Sierra snowmelt were diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913.
Officials from Inyo County and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which manages the Lower Owens River, boasted that within 10 years, the waterway would come back to life as a healthy and diverse ecosystem for fish, frogs and waterfowl, shaded by canopies of cottonwoods and willows. The rehabilitated river would attract more tourists to financially struggling Owens Valley towns with bass fishing tournaments and a kayaking experience some called "the long glide" because the river's carefully controlled flows would be free of rapids and waterfalls.
Today, about 65% of the river is dominated by vegetation collectively known as "tules" — growing 8 feet high and in swaths 10 feet wide, about 10% more than had been anticipated, project ecologists said. Fishing and kayaking opportunities exist only in scattered patches of brownish-green water.
The $39-million Lower Owens River Project "gave back our 62 miles of running water all right," said lifelong resident and fishing guide Francis Pedneau, "but you have to charter an airplane to see the water."
Marty Adams, director of water operations for the DWP, acknowledged in a statement that "the growth of tules and cattails in the river channel has been much quicker and more pervasive than anticipated by everyone involved, already choking off major portions of the river. This limits the enjoyment of open water and recreational activities."
However, he said, "we all knew this was a 'learn-as-you-go' effort ... removing the excessive vegetation is a possibility, but it is a very expensive and drawn-out undertaking that alone won't keep the water open forever."
Efforts to control the tules have included use of a boat equipped with blades, known as "the terminator." But a week into the job in 2008, the machine broke down in the river. Locals said the contraption's owner left in a huff.
Another option, quickly dismissed by officials in charge of the municipal water supply, called for spraying the tules with herbicide.
Mark Hill, the lead scientist in the Lower Owens River Project, pointed out that "if you're a fish or a duck, the project has been a boffo box office success. We've created 3,000 acres of water and wetlands. There are 4,000 largemouth bass and 2,000 bluegill per mile, and 108 species of birds, 41 of them new to the area.
"The only issue plaguing us right now is too many tules and, as a result, there are huge access problems when it comes to angling and boating," Hill said. "But we have a plan to deal with them."
The DWP launched a modeling effort last month to better understand the hydraulic factors driving both desirable and undesirable changes in the river. The findings will help determine how flow releases might be altered to drown or dislodge the tules and better disseminate willow seeds.
Disappointment over the project underscores acrimony that has simmered between the DWP and Owens Valley residents since the early 1900s, when the city agents posed as farmers and ranchers to buy up land and water rights for the aqueduct needed to slake the thirst of the growing metropolis to the south.
Inyo County Supervisor Richard Cervantes winced when he recalled Los Angeles' "sales pitch" of the Lower Owens River Project.
"They said it would be a powerful magnet for tourists that would open up new economic opportunities," Cervantes said. "So I got busy in my garage and built a little boat out of canvas and scraps of Douglas fir and redwood.
"I christened it the L.O.R.P."
On a recent weekday, Cervantes led visitors to a shady spot behind his home where the 7-foot craft rested atop sawhorses. "There is the ill-fated L.O.R.P.," he said, nodding toward the brown vessel adorned on both ends with his hand-painted renderings of a blue river cascading down a valley between snow-capped peaks. "As you can see, she's in a sad state of affairs."
"Unfortunately, I don't think she'll ever float the Lower Owens," he said, shaking his head in disappointment. "I may burn it in protest of what happened to the river."