The Owens River weaves Inyo and LA together
The Owens River is famous the world over for its unique place in history as the lifeblood of both the Owens Valley and the City of Los Angeles. It was the diversion of its water to the great metropolis through the LA Aqueduct in 1913 that allowed that city to grow from just 100,000 people in 1900 to 1.2 million just 30 years later. In the Owens Valley, the completion of the aqueduct changed the valley’s history and signaled the beginning of a rocky and often contentious relationship with its “absentee landlord,” the City of Los Angeles.
Before the aqueduct, the Owens River served the area’s first inhabitants, the Paiute/Shoshone people quite well. They built small diversion dams to irrigate stands of native plants. The arrival of white settlers put an end to the Paiutes’ way of life. Ranchers quickly diverted Owns River and its tributaries for their own use, primarily to grow hay for their cattle. Farmers moved in and took the best land for themselves. Increasing numbers of white settlers made it nearly impossible for the Paiute to maintain their traditional way of life.
At its peak, farmers and ranchers in the Owens Valley had almost 60,000 acres of land under irrigated cultivation. When Los Angles officials arrived in 1905, it was the water rights of these farmers and ranchers that the City quickly pursued. Many sold out. Others held on but eventually caved in to the financial and social pressures put on them by the City. Once the LA Aqueduct was complete and diversions started in 1913, the loss of water and the impacts it had on Inyo were profound. Today, less than 15,000 acres of land in Inyo County are being irrigated.
The Owens River begins on the icy slopes of the Eastern Sierra just south of June Mountain Ski Area. Small creeks combine in Glass Creek Meadows to form Glass Creek, the furthest natural reach of this over-utilized watercourse.
Glass Creek soon joins Deadman Creek and flows easterly under US Highway 395 just before the climb to Deadman Pass. These two creeks are joined by smaller tributaries and springs and together they soon flow into the northern reaches of the broad expanse of Long Valley where it becomes well known to anglers as the “Upper Owens.”
For 26 miles, the Owens River winds its way through this picturesque setting toward 50-plus square mile Crowley Lake, the largest storage reservoir on the Owens. Fly-fishing is the sport here with brilliant rainbows, brown trout, and cutthroat testing the skills of anglers. From Crowley Lake, the Owens River drops steeply through the voluminous Owens River Gorge.
The steep vertical walls of the Gorge attract climbers from throughout the world and foot trails wind throughout the Gorge providing numerous hiking opportunities, especially during the cooler months.
As the Owens River enters the flats of the Owens Valley, its speed slows as it makes its way peacefully through the bottomlands. About 10 miles south of Big Pine, at a location called Aberdeen, the River is diverted into a the Los Angeles Aqueduct and from here, flows 233 miles to Los Angeles through a series of siphons, canals, pipes and reservoirs, entirely by gravity. It was and still is considered a marvel of engineering.
In 2006, after years of negotiations and litigation, the City of Los Angles agreed to allow water to flow on a permanent basis, down the 63 miles of the Lower Owens River dry riverbed below the Aberdeen diversion, all the way to Owens Lake
Dry Owens Lake itself is seeing a resurgence. For decades the dry lake fouled the local air with huge dust storms. Since 2001, the city of Los Angeles has been working under a court order to reduce the dust, and has cut the dust emissions coming off the lake by 95 percent. Shallow pools of water have been spread over much of the lake, providing a surge in visits by waterfowl. The City recently opened its Owens Lake Trails project. Three different access points provide 4 miles of hiking trails, taking in the scenery and providing wildlife-viewing opportunities.
The Owens River has had a long history of serving humankind, and continues to go through many changes as it works hard to please everyone. Perhaps the Owens can be best summed up in a Mark Twain quote, “A river is like a book, but not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it has a new story to tell every day.”