A California Lake Becomes a Stopover Spot Again
Two hundred miles north of Los Angeles, windswept Owens Lake was the victim of one of the most audacious water grabs in the history of the American West. Now it is the site of one of its most innovative restorations--resurrecting a critical pit stop for migrating birds.
Habitat restoration here comes at a critical moment for the Pacific Flyway. At a time when the Colorado Delta is gradually deteriorating, the Salton Sea is dying, and the Tu- lare Basin is drying up, Owens Lake is a priceless stopover site for migrating birds. "It's not the silver bullet," says Prather, "but it's a degree of insurance. We are witnessing the return of wildlife on a scale unparalleled in the state of California."
Yet everything about Owens Lake is as shifting as the winds that have dusted up the problems he and others are trying to solve. Despite the partners' agreement nearing completion and wildlife flourishing on the lake, Los Angeles and the air district
continue to battle over how much of the original lakebed the city should be responsible for. It might take 50 square miles to con- trol the dust, says Schade. The 75,000 acre-feet of water (enough to cover a football field with water nearly 14 miles deep) Los Angeles is taking out of the aqueduct annually has reduced the dust by almost 90 percent. "We're nearly there," he says.
But Los Angeles officials said they'd done enough. After particularly combative litigation last year, negotiations stopped and everything went quiet, says Jones. The master plan, which lacked little beyond signatures, lay dormant.
In the middle of this standoff, to the surprise of almost ev- eryone, Ron Nichols, director of the Department of Water and Power, initiated a meeting with Audubon California. Within a few months Jones, Pumphrey, and Prather were poring over a brand-new, 33-page document: the city's proposal for a project designed to meet all of the goals of the unsigned master plan. The abrupt, unilateral process Los Angeles used smacked of its century-old negotiations in Owens Valley, but the proposal itself retains the wildlife habitat Audubon has been demanding. It adds trails for public access and puts birds "all over the place," and does so with much less water on the lake, Jones says. Los Ange- les plans to nearly double the $1.2 billion it has already put into dust control, committing up to an additional $1 billion to the restora- tion project. Because it halves the amount of water now flooded onto the lakebed, funding will come from selling that saved water to customers in Los Angeles. Suddenly years of talking and planning have evolved into a defined project. "We got what we wanted," says Jones, slightly stunned.
Even the decades-old battle between Los Angeles and the Great Basin air district may be settling down. In June they reached an agreement that allows the city to fast-track gravel and other dust control measures that do not require water.
While the restoration proposal goes through certification under California environmental regulations, a 6.5-square-mile pilot project is poised for the start of construction this fall. Heavy equipment will dig ponds, pushing the dirt removed into islands where stilts and avocets can nest without fear of terrestrial preda- tors. Mudflats will morph into marshes for northern harriers and savannah sparrows. It is the first restoration project deliberately designed around habitat, not dust control, says Van Wagoner. The pilot project, which will be vigorously monitored by city and independent scientists, will test the goals set by the partners during their years of planning.
It's just the start of a multistage project, but Jones and Prath- er plan to celebrate with a groundbreaking ceremony in No- vember. Department of Water and Power officials will be there, sharing shovels overturning the first dirt, says Van Wagoner. "It's remarkable to me that we've actually found a path forward where we are arm in arm with Audubon." Ironically, honoring habitat restoration will coincide with commemorating the cause of its demise. One hundred years after draining the lake, the Los Angeles City Council has declared 2013 "The Year of the LA Aqueduct" and scheduled a November 5 celebration.
The opposing festivities are classic Owens Lake--simultaneous reminders of the human potential for destruction and the power of nature to recover. After living for three decades with both the devastation of the lake's habitat and the promise of restoration, Prather remains mostly optimistic. The Depart- ment of Water and Power's latest proposal for restoration is good, he says. But his heart has been broken before. This is the time to rally the public, agencies, conservation groups, and Los Angeles politicians to commit to the proposed protections before they change their minds.
For Prather the fight is about more than birds and a lake; it is also about the overlooked parts of our nation's natural heri- tage and the struggle for small communities pushed around by larger cities. "What keeps me going," he says, "is fairness and the opportunity to defend the things I love--these gigantic landscapes and empty wild places."
At dusk, when the 18-wheelers shut down and construction has stopped for the day, Owens Lake settles back into habitat. A chalk-colored cloud is blowing toward a shallow pool where another flock of avocets is feeding, their heads the burnished orange of breeding. One pair stops. Ignoring the gusts, they stretch their necks up and down, so close together they are al- most rubbing in a ritual that has to be courtship. Their dance continues for 60 astonishing seconds. Just as suddenly it is over, and the pair blends back into the flock. Soon, perhaps within a week, they may be building a nest together in the middle of one of the lake's levees. For now they are bobbing with the others in a wind-whipped pool of whitecaps as the cloud closes in. Owens Lake is once again engulfed in a spring dust storm.