Energy transfer creates another county controversy
On the surface, it would seem like a simple proposition – the operation of hydroelectric Project 184 will transfer from the hands of Pacific Gas & Electric to those of the El Dorado Irrigation District, effective sometime this fall.
But when it comes to water rights in El Dorado County, there is always something lurking beneath the surface. The proposed switchover is already controversial, and it could get downright messy.
“When it comes to growth and water issues in this county, it seems that nothing is ever simple,” said El Dorado Irrigation District general manager William Hetland. “This (switchover) has been controversial for some time, unfortunately.”
Project 184 is basically the system which provides much of El Dorado County’s water supply. It includes the Forebay Reservoir near Pollock Pines, four mountain lakes (Lake Aloha, Echo Lake, Silver Lake and Caples Lake), the 22-mile El Dorado Canal and the 21-megawatt El Dorado Power Plant in the American River Canyon. The system provides 15,080 acre-feet of water per year within EID’s 220-square-mile service territory – which stretches roughly from the Sacramento County line to Pollock Pines. The project also controls water flow in the South Fork of the American River, the lifeblood of the commercial rafting industry.
In 1996, PG&E, which controls the project, decided to sell it because it was not cost-effective. The EID expressed interest in taking it on, and negotiations began.
But the prospect of EID taking over a large portion of the county’s water supply made some people very nervous. What if EID increased the water supply? Would that mean more development?
Then, in January 1997, heavy winter storms damaged portions of the project, including portions of the canal and the power plant. PG&E, citing repair costs, attempted to cancel negotiations with EID.
“That spawned lawsuits, and eventually the two sides got back to the negotiating table,” Hetland said. “Eventually, a new agreement was reached.”
So the sale is back on, but not until EID meets some conditions. One of those hurdles was overcome recently when board of directors approved an environmental impact report on the switchover.
“Basically, one of the reasons that an EIR was required was that folks in Amador and Alpine counties were concerned that EID’s focus would be on water consumption,” Hetland said. “They were afraid that we would draw their lakes down. But through public workshops and meetings, we assured people that the operation would not be much different than it has been for the past 70 years.
“Our district’s viability is based on our reliance on water,” he said. “It’s one of our planet’s greatest resources; this EIR demonstrates our understanding of and respect for this relationship.”
Hetland said that among the significant environmental benefits to EID’s acquisition would be environmental repairs, including a $1.2 million fish screen and improved fish ladder at the El Dorado Diversion Dam, which will prevent fish from entering the canal.
EID will also build a tunnel between Mill Creek and Bull Creek, decreasing the potential for canal failures and erosion into the South Fork of the American River.
A computer system will also be installed to monitor water levels and warn of potential hazards.
The transfer must still be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, and that will most likely not happen until the fall. Permanent repairs to the diversion dam, canal and powerhouse are not expected to be completed until next year.
“Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if (the transfer) were challenged in court,” Hetland said. “Water is a controversial issue in this county, as is county growth.
“But we’re making a commitment to maintain lake levels that go well beyond the conditions of the existing (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) license.”
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