Lakes decision becomes landmark ruling
A court ruling keeping El Dorado County water purveyors from diverting water out of four Sierra Nevada lakes to allow for growth on the West Slope will be published and become the “law of the land” in California, applicable to other water development projects.
“This means that all water projects in this state must now comply with state environmental laws,” said Stephan Volker, attorney for the plaintiffs. “Finally, water development schemes that unleash explosive urban sprawl must conform to local land use planning and comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.
“This is a great day for California’s lakes and rivers, the fish and wildlife dependent on them, and the millions of recreationists who love the out-of-doors.”
Last week the California Court of Appeals granted requests from the 400-member League to Save Sierra Lakes, Alpine County and other plaintiffs to publish the Nov. 3 ruling. The 52-page decision upheld a 1997 superior court ruling overturning plans for a large-scale water development proposed by the El Dorado Irrigation District and El Dorado County Water Agency.
“We are thrilled that by publishing its ruling, the court of appeals has decided that water development in this state must comply with California planning laws, regardless of whether project developers must also satisfy federal law,” said Herman Zellmer, chairman of the Alpine County Board of Supervisors. “This means that even the biggest and most powerful water developers must comply with the environmental rules of the tiniest and least populated county, which we happen to be.”
The fight over the use of Caples, Silver and Echo lakes as well as Lake Aloha in Desolation Wilderness has been ongoing since 1991, and several lawsuits have been filed over the issue.
The system in question, Project 184, includes a reservoir near Pollock Pines, a 22-mile canal, a 21-megawatt power plant in the American River Canyon and the lakes. The system now diverts water from the lakes to generate energy at the plant and provides about 15,000 acre-feet of water per year within El Dorado Irrigation District’s 220-square-mile service area, which stretches from the Sacramento County line to Pollock Pines.
County water purveyors want a 17,000-acre-feet increase each year.
Alpine County and the League to Save Sierra Lakes have been fighting the plans, worried that the proposal would lead to the water purveyors drawing the lakes down early in the season, hurting recreation, or too quickly in the fall, hurting the stream banks with rushing water.
The court has upheld that the water purveyors’ environmental documentation failed to evaluate the potential impacts on the four lakes. The court also rejected the appeal because the water purveyors were making claims based on the unapproved El Dorado County general plan, which was invalidated earlier this year in another court ruling.
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