L.A.'s unquenchable thirst sucked the lower Owens River dry. But now this sparkling eastern Sierra stream is flowing again.
For most of the 20th century, about half the water that flowed out of Angelenos' faucets originated in California's Owens Valley. Set 250 miles north of Los Angeles in the shadow of the eastern Sierra Nevada, the valley took on its role as big-city spigot on November 5, 1913, when water czar William Mulholland ordered floodgates to the new Los Angeles Aqueduct opened and, as pristine Sierra water thundered forth, famously told the cheering crowd, "There it is—take it."
Within a few short years, the lower Owens River became a tumbleweed-choked channel lined by lifeless willows and cottonwoods. Prosperous farms and orchards withered. Owens Lake, once home to tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, dried into a hundred-square-mile dust bowl that went on to earn the distinction of being the nation's largest source of fine-particle air pollution. If you want evidence to support the axiom that in the arid West water flows toward money, just look to the Owens Valley water grab—a conspiracy dramatized in the 1974 movie Chinatown, with John Huston as Noah Cross, the sinister Mulholland-like heavy.
But in an act of court-ordered contrition, Los Angeles is giving back at least some of what it took. After years of legal wrangling and delays, the city's Department of Water and Power has "rewatered" 62 miles of the lower Owens River by allowing a constant knee-deep flow of 40 cubic feet per second.
It's the largest river restoration effort in the United States. Willows are greening up,fish are thriving where once only weeds grew, and clouds of birds are flocking back to a spot in the lakebed where a dust control project, fed in part by the "new" river, has created 30 square miles of wetlands that mirror the pinnacles of the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains.
Mike Prather, a spokesperson for the local Audubon Society, calls the reborn lake "a globally important wetland in the making." An estimated 63,000 American avocets and thousands of ducks will stop there during the fall migration. Along the lower river, yellow-billed cuckoos, bank swallows, and willow flycatchers are being spotted in the recovering woodlands.
The biological comeback is already a boon to anglers, birders, boaters, hikers, and nature lovers. But discussions are under way for campgrounds, biking and hiking paths, a kayak launching center, interpretive stops along Highway 395, and a "river heritage center" in Independence or Lone Pine. In the meantime, travelers can pull off on side roads east of the highway to stretch their legs and witness the renewal of a river that disappeared from the West 95 years ago.
"When you talk about dropping 62 miles of river into an area that many people already consider an adventure capital of the world—how great is that?" asks Inyo County Administrator Kevin Carunchio. "It's only going to get better."
This article was first published in July 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.