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Groundwater Dependent Vegetation

Owens Valley Vegetation

Vegetation of the Owens Valley has been studied, classified, and described in many ways. Paiutes living in the Valley when the first Europeans arrived were well-acquainted with the native flora and had developed extensive irrigation systems in several areas to propagate food plants (Sauder 1994).

Surveyor A.W. von Schmidt, one of the first Europeans to record observations, did not share the Paiutes’ appreciation of the native flora. In 1855 he wrote that on a general average the country forming the Owens Valley is worthless to the White Man. On the other hand, only four years later (1859), Captain J.W. Davidson of the U.S. Army evaluated the valley quite differently: Every step now taken shows you that nature has been lavish of her stores. The Mountains are filled with timber, the valleys with water, and the meadows of luxuriant grass. Some of the meadows contain, at a moderate estimate, ten thousand acres every foot of which can be irrigated (Sauder 1994). In 1864 William Brewer and his geological survey team traveled up the valley. The Sierra Nevada catches all the rains and clouds from the west — to the east are deserts — so, of course, this valley sees but little rain, but where streams come down from the Sierra they spread out and great meadows of green grass occur. Tens of thousands of the starving cattle of the state have been driven in here this year, and there is feed for twice as many more. Yet these meadows comprise not over one-tenth of the valley— the rest is desert. At the base of the mountains, on either side the land slopes gradually up as if to meet them. This slope is desert, sand covered with boulders, and supporting a growth of desert shrubs. In one area Brewer also noted the best grass I have seen in the state. (Farquhar, 1974)

In 1912, Charles H. Lee, and engineer for DWP, reported on water resources of Owens Valley. He described vegetation on the valley floor in terms of three types: grass land, alkali land and desert land. Lee’s grass, and alkali land types we include in the Alkali meadows discussion (below) and Lee’s desert land in the Alkali sink discussion.

Recent visitors from other parts of the world — including Dominic Rubalcava, Chairman of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners — have dismissed the vegetation in the Owens Valley as “weeds,” (James 2001a) while some long-time local residents still describe the Owens Valley’s extensive shrub lands simply as “sagebrush.” Ecologists today describe vegetation in terms of both physiographic features of the environment in which it occurs and particular associations of species. Some characteristic types of vegetation of Owens Valley are described below.

For more information about vegetation of the Owens Valley floor, contact the Inyo County Water Department at

An overview of vegetation in the White and Inyo Mountains is available in Hall (1991). Plant lists for certain parts of Owens Valley such as the Alabama Hills and the Bishop Creek watershed are available from the Bristlecone Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

Vegetation composition and condition as an indicator of ecosystem condition

Impacts of DWP’s water management practices are almost always described in terms of decline in vegetative cover1 and/or change in species composition. The numerous reports of the Inyo County Water Department (ICWD) (available on the ICWD website) as well as the EIR to the Inyo-LA Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) are cases in point. While the LTWA specifically prohibits certain types of vegetation change, it also prohibits management which induces “other significant impacts.” This point is important. With the constant emphasis on vegetation and cover, people often forget that measurements of change in vegetation cover and composition were important as surrogates for measurements of ecosystem change. While impacts to vegetation cover and composition are important, they are equally (if not more) important as coarse-scale indicators of the countless fine scale ecosystem parameters that are infeasible to measure. This discussion focuses on Owens Valley vegetation as the most obvious indicator of “what is at stake.” Please remember, however, that change in vegetation must be considered as the tip of the iceberg of the complete ecosystem impacts.

1Cover is an measure of the area covered by foliage when looking straight down at the vegetation. It is widely used by ecologists and range managers to provide a simple, quantitative characterization of vegetation.

Literature cited