Group vows lawsuit to keep lakes’ water |

Group vows lawsuit to keep lakes’ water

Robert Stern

It’s a 10-year-old fight over water, and it’s not over yet.

Last month, the El Dorado Irrigation District won the right to take more water from Silver, Caples and Aloha lakes. The decision was a milestone in EID’s efforts to serve the fast-growing West Slope, particularly El Dorado Hills and Cameron Park.

“We will be suing the California State Water Resources Control Board over their decision,” said Norm Rupp, advocate for the League to Save Sierra Lakes and former chairman.

The League, along with 18 other parties, could file a lawsuit against the state water board for its Aug. 16 decision granting EID an additional 17,000 acre-feet of water from the three lakes, said League attorney Stephan Volker.

The irrigation district already had rights to 15,000 acre-feet of water on the three lakes plus Echo Lake. The “lakes,” all manmade reservoirs, feed a hydroelectric power system on the South Fork of the American River.

EID acquired the hydro project known as Project 184 from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in 1999, along with the associated water rights. Repairs to the flood-damaged system are under way as the district awaits a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In the meantime, the state water board voted to grant EID a total of 32,000 acre-feet of water from the upper Sierra lakes. The new, “consumptive” supply can be used to serve homes and businesses in a district facing a critical water shortage.

The deadline to file an appeal is Monday and the potential for a lawsuit does not come as a surprise.

“They indicated at the (SWRCB) workshop before the board voted that they were likely to challenge it,” said Dana Differding, staff counsel for the water board.

“(The League) has a different agenda than we do,” said David Witter, EID project administrator. “Everyone has a different interest, and ours is to provide water to our customers.”

Witter said the water is important for “future growth of the city and economic development in the county, not just houses but for business and people’s livelihoods.”

On the East Slope, people’s livelihoods include boating, swimming and fishing. For counties such as Alpine and Amador, recreation at the lakes is a key component of their economy.

“A basic nub of this whole thing is, ‘What function to society do these lakes play?’ You have 900,000 people who drive up to Caples and Silver lakes every year,” said Brad Pearson, League president.

The League argues that drawing down the lakes is harmful to tourism and recreation.

“When water is released, the elevation of the lake declines, leaving huge mudflaps between the shore and the lake, preventing public access,” Volker said.

The irrigation district has been trying to tap into additional water from Silver, Caples and Aloha since 1991 but has faced legal hurdles every step of the way. Besides the League to Save Sierra Lakes, plaintiffs have included Alpine and Amador counties, Caples Lake Resort, the Kit Carson Lodge, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and El Dorado County Taxpayers for Quality Growth.

In 1999, the issue reached the Third District Court of Appeal, which ruled a 1995 environmental impact report was inadequate. The same year, EID reached a settlement with Amador and El Dorado counties by agreeing not to release water from Silver Lake prior to Labor Day.

The state took note of that agreement and a second environmental report prepared by EID, which included a “lake level operational commitment” to keep the lakes at or above the minimum levels maintained by PG&E. The water board took issue with that approach in its decision:

“This operational commitment affords EID considerable flexibility, but is not necessarily representative of historic operations, and will not necessarily afford adequate protection to recreational uses at the lakes.”

Instead, the water board imposed a requirement that EID keep water at or above the average levels maintained by PG&E from 1935 to 1996.

“A lot of protesters are afraid EID would draw down lakes in the summertime so what we attempted to do is look at historic levels,” Differding said.

The water board may not have the last word, however, since its decision does not apply to operation of Project 184. Depending on the terms of the pending hydro license, EID may be able to draw the lakes down for power generation and redivert the water for consumptive use.

“The exemption will allow EID to comply with federal release requirements … even if the lake level requirements are not being met,” the decision states. “In addition, EID will not be required to comply with the lake level requirements if it is releasing water from the lakes only for purposes of power generation.”

– City Editor Michael S. Green contributed to this report.

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