County loses latest Alpine lakes battle
Alpine County and a group of environmentalists say they achieved another victory in a long-running fight against El Dorado County water providers.
The California Supreme Court earlier this month upheld previous rulings favoring the coalition in a lawsuit concerning the future of four Sierra Nevada lakes.
“We are elated that the Supreme Court has refused to disturb the Court of Appeal’s precedent-setting ruling,” said Norm Rupp, a resident of Kirkwood and chairman of the League to Save Sierra Lakes, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against the El Dorado Irrigation District and El Dorado County Water Agency.
“We’re very optimistic. We haven’t lost any of our fervor,” he added. “It’s always nice when you get a win. It keeps morale at a high point and that’s the way it’s been all along. We have consistently been right.”
However, under a new environmental report it is preparing, the El Dorado Irrigation District is moving forward on plans to use 17,000-acre-feet of water a year from Caples, Silver and Echo lakes as well as Lake Aloha in Desolation Wilderness.
The Supreme Court’s decision only considered an earlier report from the district.
However, Stephan Volker, attorney for the environmental group, said the ruling will make it easier to fight the district’s new environmental study.
“I think we stand an excellent chance of prevailing,” Volker said.
Alpine County, the 400-member League to Save Sierra Lakes and other groups have been fighting with El Dorado County concerning its plans since 1991, and several lawsuits have been filed over the issue.
The system in question is called Project 184, which includes a reservoir near Pollock Pines, a 22-mile canal, a 21-megawatt power plant in the American River Canyon and the four lakes. The system, which diverts about 80,000 acre feet of water a year from the American River to generate energy at the plant and then puts the water back into the river, historically was operated by Pacific Gas & Electric. It was purchased by El Dorado County water purveyors last year.
The irrigation district and the water agency want not only to use the system for hydroelectric power but also use 17,000 acre feet of water for consumption in the 220-square-mile service area, which stretches from the Sacramento County line to Pollock Pines.
The irrigation district says that it will take the water after it goes into Folsom Reservoir, and it will not hurt the four lakes. The suit’s plaintiffs, however, say they are worried about the four lakes’ being drawn down, disrupting summer recreation there and hurting the environment.
“We feel there is an extreme value in those lakes for a variety of reasons: aesthetics, recreation, environment,” Rupp said. “I’m a grandfather, and I’m going to see my children’s children enjoy those lakes.”
Some plaintiffs also are concerned that using the water would increase development on the West Slope of the county.
A California court last year ruled with the plaintiffs, saying the water purveyors’ study failed to evaluate the potential impacts on the four lakes. And the courts also sided with the plaintiffs because the water purveyors were making claims based on the unapproved El Dorado County general plan, which was invalidated last year in another court ruling.
In December the California Court of Appeals granted requests from the League to Save Sierra Lakes, Alpine County and other plaintiffs to publish the ruling, which makes the case precedent-setting. The Supreme Court’s ruling this month ensures the ruling will be used for future cases involving water rights.
“We’re very disappointed that they didn’t ‘de-publish it,’ ” said William Hetland, general manager of the irrigation district. “It now gets problematic. You can’t do a water plan without a general plan, when the law already says you can’t do a general plan without a water plan. You’re in a ‘Catch-22.'”
Hetland said the environmental study the district is working under now gives the agency the ability to repair Project 184 equipment that was damaged in the Flood of 1997 and use it for hydroelectric power. That part of the program could be operating in a year.
Whether the 17,000 acre feet of water can be taken for consumption remains in question, he said.
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