OWENS VALLEY, Calif.—On Dec. 6, 2006, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Inyo County Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Cash released the first flow of water into the Lower Owens River since the city of Los Angeles began diverting water from it nearly a century ago. The Lower Owens River Project (LORP), a cooperative effort of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and Inyo County, will provide a steady flow of water to 62 miles of the Owens River below the Los Angeles Aqueduct Intake where the river has been essentially dry since the aqueduct opened in 1913. From the Aqueduct Intake, water will be released through automated gates, and follow its natural route down to the Delta of Owens Lake, just south of Lone Pine. Additional water will spread into basins at Blackrock and the Owens Lake Delta to create hundreds of acres of wetland habitat and maintain off-river lakes and ponds for waterfowl, shore birds, and fisheries.

LADWP released the first water into the river nearly two months ahead of schedule. The Inyo County Superior Court had set deadlines for the LORP implementation requiring flows to commence by Jan. 25, 2007, and the full flow of 40 cubic feet per second (cfs) by July 25, 2007. LADWP officials said they expect to meet the target flows before that deadline.

Since beginning the $24 million construction project in January 2006, LADWP crews have built a new water-release structure and dredged almost 2 miles of the river channel near the Los Angeles Aqueduct Intake. At the same time, work has been underway to construct a 50-cfs pump station just north of Owens Lake. The pump station will return a portion of the water to the Los Angeles Aqueduct or deliver it to the Owens Lake Dust Control Project.

LADWP General Manager Ron Deaton said that once target flow is achieved and the pump station is operating, the LORP is expected to require about 9,000 acre-feet of water per year, worth about $3 million. "We expect to be able to achieve this flow without impacting the supply of water for Los Angeles," he said. "We will offset the water losses partially through water conservation, which has reached an all-time high in the city, and through additional water purchases."

The city’s successful water conservation efforts are reflected by the fact that water use is approximately the same today as it was 25 years ago, despite a population increase of more than 1 million people, said James McDaniel, COO of LADWP’s Water System.

The LORP evolved from an idea conceived nearly 25 years ago by the LADWP and Fish and Game biologists. The 1991 Los Angeles/Inyo County Water Agreement and Environmental Impact Report on the construction of the Second L.A. Aqueduct formally identified the LORP as mitigation for Owens Valley groundwater pumping by Los Angeles between 1970 and 1990. The LORP was further defined in a 1997 memorandum of understanding among the LADWP, Inyo County, the State Lands Commission, the California Department of Fish and Game, the Owens Valley Committee, and the Sierra Club.