Birders Flock to 2019 Owens Lake Bird Festival

By Sylvia Beltran

Nearly 170 bird watchers and nature enthusiasts descended on the town of Lone Pine, California, April 26-28 to participate in the 5th Annual Owens Lake Bird Festival. The three-day event, sponsored by Friends of Inyo, LADWP and others, brought outdoor enthusiasts together for this popular event. Birders, as they fondly refer to themselves, participated in numerous outings onto Owens Lake and excursions to other areas around Lone Pine to view birds, wildflowers, geologic and historical features.

As the early morning sun rose over the Inyo Mountains to the east of Owens Lake, several groups of birders traveled onto the lake stopping to eagerly set up their spotting scopes to view birds from a distance. Birds could be found playfully scurrying on the shorelines, foraging for food or flying in for a restful stop as they migrated to their summer home. Mild temperatures in the mornings made bird watching more comfortable. As the weather warmed in the afternoon, it didn’t stop birders from heading back to the lake to try and spot other birds and maybe catch a peek of the cryptic Snowy Plover.

The Snowy Plover, which nests during this time of year on the playa of Owens Lake, is classified as a species of special concern, which limits the proximity of humans and equipment to their nests.  Other birds found on the lake during the festival included the Western and Least Sandpiper, American Avocet, Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Mallard and other water birds.

Juanita Smith-Nokao was a first-time birder.  Born in Bishop, Calif., Juanita moved away for college and upon graduation, she moved to Japan to teach mathematics. She later moved to Monterey, Calif., where she continued teaching until her recent retirement. Once retired, Juanita moved to Lone Pine.  She was never a birder, but wanted to understand how others could be attracted to the activity. Her initial interest was sparked while teaching in Monterey where she observed that ravens were astute enough to learn the school bell schedule. They would swoop down onto the grounds where crumbs had fallen after snack and lunch period. Now that she lives in Lone Pine and the bird festival is in her back yard, she wanted to participate in the event. She made new friends – both human and winged – and stated she would attend next year’s festival.

Juanita Smith-Nokao using her binoculars to view the birds from a distance on Owens Lake.

Jay Carroll, a retired marine biologist from Morro Bay, Calif., finds birding appealing.  Jay described the appeal as a free peek into nature and how birds behave, an opportunity to study birds’ feather colors and markings while enjoying the outdoors and nature. At this year’s bird festival, Jay focused on the migrating birds like the Western Sandpiper, American Avocet, Northern Pintail and others.

The Owens Lake Bird Festival has grown in popularity and participation since it began in 2014. Participants come from various parts of California, including San Diego, Mammoth Lakes, the Bay Area and from Nevada. LADWP employees provide support for the annual event and lead groups onto Owens Lake for their bird watching enjoyment.

LADWP began the largest dust mitigation efforts in the United States at Owens Lake in 2000. Since the efforts began, the exposed lakebed has been transformed into a haven for migratory birds and other wildlife. The lakebed has a myriad of mitigation measures including shallow flooding, native vegetation, gravel and tillage to abate harmful dust from blowing off the dry lakebed.

Learn more about LADWP’s environmental work at Owens Lake. 

Hydrographers Feel Sense of History

Season’s Snowpack Weighs In at Second Wettest in Five Years

By Jessica Johnson

Record rains across the state and plenty of snow in the mountains helped boost the Eastern Sierra snowpack to reach LADWP’s final measurement on April 1, 2019 to 171 percent – an astounding number when you consider at this same time last year, it was a registering 66 percent, and in 2017, 203 percent of normal.

Being the second wettest year in the last five years, LADWP water operations are better prepared to deal with the influx in water than in 2017, such as preparing the spreading grounds for snow melt as early as possible.

In order to obtain the snowpack amounts and level of preparation needed, LADWP hydrographers conduct snow surveys from January to April. Each spring the final snowpack and Mono Lake water elevations are measured and analyzed to help determine runoff and water supply projections for the LA Aqueduct System.

This past winter Intake joined one of the Rock Creek Basin snow surveys with LADWP hydrographers. LADWP has measured the same 12 courses located in four major watershed basins since the 1920s. The courses are located at varying elevations between 8,000 and 11,000 feet, and include the Cottonwood Lakes Basin, Big Pine Canyon, Rock Creek Canyon, and the Mammoth Lakes Basin. The sites were selected because they accurately represent overall snowpack and precipitation conditions at specific areas and elevations.

Starting just above Rock Creek Lake at the highest point of approximately 10,700 feet, we worked our way down the canyon, stopping at snow courses that were each around 1,000 feet long and included up to 10 measuring points.


Senior Hydrographer Bruce Peterson holds aluminum tube used for taking snow core samples.

As LADWP Senior Hydrographer Bruce Peterson recorded the weight of water content from one sample, he said, “this work is way different than other positions at the Department. There is a sense of history and tradition; we are still doing surveys using the same standardized methods, equipment, and at very similar locations as hydrographers 100 years ago did,” said Peterson, who has been working for the Department for 12 years.

Unlike years ago, hydrographers no longer need to rely on dog teams or pack mules to enter the back country of the Eastern Sierra. But they do utilize snow cats, snowmobiles, snowshoes, and even skis to traverse the remote areas where the snowpack surveys are conducted.

One of the most famous LADWP hydrographers was Dave McCoy, who founded and ran Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. A hydrographer in the 1940s and an avid skier, McCoy figured out that Mammoth Mountain received the most reliable amount of snowfall. In 1945, McCoy obtained the rights from the U.S. Forest Service to build a permanent rope tow on Mammoth Mountain. Armed with his knowledge of snowpack and snowfall patterns, McCoy developed the mountain as a major ski resort.

“As a kid growing up in the Eastern Sierra the hydrographer job is kind of a dream job. To actually have the job now is pretty cool,” reflected LADWP Hydrogapher Chad Galvin as he shook a snow core sample from the aluminum tube used to measure water content.

Many important decisions depend upon accurate water supply forecasting. Determining how much water to purchase to augment the Eastern Sierra supply as well as make decisions about customer needs, water supply irrigation, reservoir storage, environmental obligations, and hydroelectric generation in the Owens Valley all rely on the data from snowpack surveys.

Once back at the office, the hydrographers input data collected from each snow survey, combine it with rainfall and stream flow measurements into a computer model that helps forecast the next year’s water supply from Eastern Sierra snowmelt, explained Steve Rich, a senior hydrographer who has worked on close to 30 snow surveys for the Department.

Dave McCoy, founder of Mammoth Mountain, was one of LADWP’s most famous hydrographers.

Based on the 2019 final snowpack survey, approximately 114 billion gallons of water will be used in the Mono Basin and Inyo County to meet environmental commitments and operational needs. LADWP has taken active measures to prepare for the arrival of the anticipated high water runoff resulting from this year’s very wet winter, and the LA Aqueduct system will flow at or near full capacity.

This means in the following 12-month period, the LA Aqueduct is expected to provide approximately 119 billion gallons of water, that meet an estimated 70 percent of L.A.’s overall water demand supplying more than 1 million single family homes. To put things into perspective, in an average snowpack year, the LA Aqueduct provides about half of LA’s total water supply.

A recent announcement by Mayor Eric Garcetti that LA will recycle 100 percent of its wastewater by 2035 offers the potential for LADWP to reliably source up to 70 percent of its water sustainably and locally instead of depending significantly on imported water. Having a lucrative water year is a positive for LADWP’s ability to secure a sustainable water future for L.A.

As winter gives way to spring and summer, the melting snow supplies vital water flows that fill the many creeks and lakes in the area.

“With the above-normal precipitation after April 1st leading to a higher-than forecasted runoff, we will be very busy in northern district water operations charting and reporting water flows, measuring water levels at reservoirs, creeks, wells, checking weather patterns, and preparing the aqueduct system for the runoff,” said Rich.

Visit to learn more about LADWP’s water policies and projects in the Eastern Sierra.

Watch Snowpack Survey Video

Snow Pillow Data

Collette Gaal: Protecting Owens Valley’s Natural Habitat

By Jessica Johnson
Communications, Media and Community Affairs

Maintaining and operating nearly 315,000 acres of mostly undeveloped watershed lands is no small feat, but LADWP’s Water System does just that in the Eastern Sierra where a major portion of Los Angeles’ water supply comes from.

LADWP’s Northern District Water Operations Division has over 250 employees who work and live in Kern, Inyo and Mono counties. Their job: maintaining a number of water supply facilities including, the First and Second Los Angeles Aqueducts, several reservoirs, and hundreds of miles of canals and ditches. Within Water Operations is a dedicated watershed management group, staffed with biologists, botanists, a soil scientist, and other technical and administrative personnel who monitor the Owens Valley watershed ecosystems and the preserve water supplies to the city while protecting water quality, habitat and wildlife.

Recently, we sat down with Watershed Resources Specialist Collette Gaal, who has worked with LADWP for nine of her 25 years in the environmental field. Focusing on LADWP’s water management projects, Gaal has been a part of several enhancement projects including the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Project and the Lower Owens River Project.

Collette Gaal with members of the LADWP Northern District Watershed Resources team at Owens Lake. From left: Jeff Nordin, Ron Tucker, Gaal, Jason Morgan and Debbie House. (Photo courtesy of Collette Gaal)

Intake: What inspired you to follow a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?

CG: Growing up, I liked biology, hiking, camping and anything to do with being outdoors.

Intake: Tell us more about what you do, and some of your favorite projects you have had the chance to work on.

CG: My job includes fulfilling LADWP’s biological mitigation requirements for exporting water to Los Angeles, obtaining environmental permits for projects, maintaining the Los Angeles Aqueduct waterways and Owens Lake dust control. I also help coordinate the annual Owens Lake Bird Festival, held each April. In addition, I support measuring flow in the creeks high in the mountains. The field trips for this project are interesting because we’re in the beautiful countryside, and you have to travel a rugged four-wheel trip to get to some of these spots.

Intake: What are some of your favorite recreational activities in the Eastern Sierra?

CG: The Eastern Sierra is marvelous for many outdoor activities. Some weekends, it is hard to decide what to do. You can cross-country ski, road- or mountain-bike, kayak, explore historical mining ruins or Native American wikiups (lodges) or view the beautiful wildflowers at many elevations. I have not yet rafted the Owens River, but it is on my list!

Intake: In your opinion, what makes the Owens Valley watershed unique?

CG: The Owens Valley watershed is high desert, adjacent to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Much of the land is owned by the City of Los Angeles and federal agencies (Inyo National Forest) and so the area is lightly populated and relatively undeveloped.  There is abundant wildlife, fascinating geology, and cultural history.  The Paiute have a large presence in the area and carry on traditional activities such as pine nut harvesting. Some of the interesting geology includes volcanic cinder cones, Bishop tuff, consolidated ash, hot springs and the weathered granite formations in the Buttermilks (Sierra Nevada foothills) and Alabama Hills.

Intake: There are a lot of community events in the Owens Valley – what events do you most look forward to each year?

CG: My favorite local event is the Bishop ultra-marathon, a benefit for Eastern Sierra Youth Outdoor Program and Inyo County Search and Rescue.  I do the 20-mile fun run (I walk a lot of it!).  It is in the Buttermilks and is a locally supported event. They even have a local caterer who cooks food at the finish line.