Natural Perspectives: Owens Valley slowly recovering

Vic and I have just returned from a field trip with Sea & Sage Audubon Society to the Eastern Sierras. We went primarily to see the progress on the Owens Lake restoration, as well as to watch sage grouse courtship and to scout out locations for the birding classes that Vic leads to that area.

Linda Oberholzer was our leader for this trip. It was a relief that Vic didn't have the responsibility for organizing or keeping the 13-car caravan together. It was really nice to be able to relax and enjoy being a participant instead of leading. Others from Huntington Beach on this trip were Lena Hayashi and Dick and Pat Cabe. All three are longtime environmental activists who participate in the monthly bird surveys at Shipley Nature Center and the Huntington Wetlands, both of which Lena is the organizer.

We started Saturday morning with a tour of Owens Lake led by Mike Prather, an environmental activist from Lone Pine. He is one of the many people involved in the ongoing restoration and dust abatement project there.

"This is a very big story," Prather said. "Owens Lake restoration is in the works, but it's not done yet."

A decade ago, Owens Lake was a dry salt flat. Whenever the wind blew, toxic dust filled the air, making Owens Valley one of our nation's worst areas for air pollution. But it was not always that way.

A century ago, Owens Lake was a wide, crystal blue lake that was fed primarily by the Owens River that came down from the Mammoth area, through Bishop, Independence and Lone Pine. Tributary mountain streams fed into the river along the way. A steamship provided transportation for silver ingots that were extracted on the east side of Owens Lake. The steamship carried the ingots to the west side at Cartago, where the silver was loaded onto mule-drawn wagons for transport to Los Angeles. As they had for thousands of years prior, waterfowl and shorebirds darkened the skies during spring and fall migration.

But in 1913, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power began diverting water from the Owens River and its tributary streams. After the water turned turbines in the canyons to generate electricity, it was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Water no longer reached the Owens River; eventually, Owens Lake dried up. What had once been a lake became a dry, toxic salt flat that was of little use to migratory shorebirds and waterfowl. And when the wind blew, the dust was horrible. A toxic cloud of arsenic, cadmium, nickel and sulfates blew across the desert. Only a few spring-fed oases remained of the once-majestic Owens Lake.

With the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and subsequent amendments in 1990, local residents finally had a tool that could be used to force re-watering of the lakebed to abate dust. They formed a group called the Owens Valley Committee; in 2005, they got a court order that directed Los Angeles DWP to restore flow to the lower Owens River. Water once again began to flow through the lower river and into the lake in December 2006.

Today, there are a series of pipes, pumps, valves and spigots that direct and regulate water flow into a number of cells that have been created on the formerly dry lakebed. The goal is to maintain the water level at a few inches. In addition to improving air quality in the area, the lake has once again become a prime migratory stopover for ducks and shorebirds.

Watering of some cells began as early as 2001. Today, the water-based dust control project covers 30 of the 100 square miles of Owens Lake. About 3.5 square miles are covered with native saltgrass that is supported by a drip irrigation system. The remaining 27 square miles or restored lakebed are ponded.

The saltgrass and ponding have restored a food web that now supports thousands of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds. Bird counts conducted in April and August yield over 40,000 birds of up to 100 species utilizing the restored areas. When we were there, we observed dozens of avocets and hundreds of American pipits pursuing hordes of brine flies.

Prather said a planning committee is meeting this week to work on developing a master plan that will look at the lake comprehensively. It hopes to have an Environmental Impact Report written by the end of the year that will deal with dust, mining, cattle grazing and habitat restoration. It will use a Habitat Suitability Index to look at the needs of different groups of wildlife, develop parameters such as water depth, salinity and topography for each group and habitat and use satellite imagery for monitoring the parameters.

Groups working on this project include the Owens Valley Committee, Eastern Sierra Audubon Society, Los Angeles DWP, California Department of Fish and Game, State Lands Commission, Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, California Native Plant Society, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Inyo County and the local tribe of Native Americans, the Paiute-Shoshone.

"This is more of an advocacy than a fight," Prather said. The groups are cooperating to develop the best possible plan that will restore the area for wildlife, conserve water and improve air quality.

For more information on the Owens Lake restoration project, visit

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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