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Controversy Mounts Around Proposed Garden Bar Dam on Bear River


By: Susan Snider, YubaNet

GRASS VALLEY, Calif. June 28, 2010 - It is an area that abounds in majestic blue oaks and grey pines. Coupled with lush seasonal grasses, it is a biologically diverse habitat that sustains myriad numbers of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Historically, the area was home to indigenous Maidu tribes and some of the oldest pioneer families in Nevada County. The Emigrant Trail ran through its pristine woodlands before terminating in Wheatland. Today, the area supports a thriving cattle grazing population.

But if a northern California water district is successful in pushing through a proposed dam along the Bear River at the Garden Bar Crossing, all of this -- and much more -- will be lost under a reservoir potentially five times the size of Nevada Irrigation District's Rollins Lake.

At the June 23 NID board meeting in Grass Valley, directors heard concerns from several local groups about the Garden Bar Dam project, proposed by South Sutter Water District. Located in southern Sutter and western Placer counties, SSWD supplies surface and groundwater to significant amounts of agricultural land, including rice fields.

Before directors heard these comments, Assistant Manager Tim Crough spoke on behalf of NID general manager Ron Nelson, who was absent from the board meeting. "Ron wanted me to say a few words," Crough advised. "For several years, the district has been aware of several attempts by agencies to install dams along the Bear near Camp Far West. We heard about this current one through the grapevine."

Crough added that receiving specifics from SSWD has been difficult and that NID sent a letter requesting a presentation by South Sutter on the proposed project. He indicated that SSWD will offer information "sometime in the near future" at an NID board meeting. "Ron also wanted me to point out that this project is in an area outside NID boundaries," Crough continued. "And NID will not be providing water for this project -- and we do not know any details of this project to date."

Ironically, South Sutter Water District receives anywhere from 5000 to 20,000 acre feet from NID during surplus water years, at a fraction of current water rates under a contract due to expire in 2013. This year's per acre foot charge to SSWD was $25.57.

The Public Speaks

Representing the Nevada County Land Trust, Joe Byrne offered some sobering numbers on the proposed project. According to information supplied by Byrne, South Sutter plans to build a $500 million hydroelectric and storage facility, including a 350-foot tall dam that would impound roughly 250,000 acre feet of water. But he also noted in his presentation that the reservoir could have a capacity of over 345,000 acre feet.

Of concern to Byrne, the land trust, and numerous property owners are the over 2,000 acres of land on both sides of the river that will be permanently inundated by the project. Currently, NCLT has conservation interests on over 2,100 acres along the Bear River is this area and has several thousand additional acres proposed for preservation on the south side of the river. "This will gut our plans with Placer County Land Trust to create a wilderness area to preserve farming, ranching and wildlife," Byrne told NID directors.

"Ranching families up and down the river here will be affected," Byrne continued. "This dam will destroy a diverse environment and economy. It will affect each and every farmer and rancher in western Nevada County."

According to Byrne, SSWD has cobbled together a group of "urban water agencies" to pay for an initial due diligence study. Claiming $1 million has already been raised by these agencies - the City of Napa Public Works Department, the City of American Canyon Water Department, Castaic Lake Water Agency, the City of San Bernardino Water District and the Palmdale Water District -- Byrne further claims that 85 percent of the cost of the study was funded by the southern California entities. "We want to make sure that as a rural community we don't get caught in a process by more affluent communities that are seeking water," Byrne said.

NID Director Nick Wilcox stated he was aware of some water rights filings on a previously proposed project. "I believe those rights were filed by South Sutter during that time," Wilcox advised. "The state board had to impose fees on pending applications -- and South Sutter was faced with paying large fees to maintain their application. I'm not sure, but I think they abandoned their rights."

Noting that the Nevada County Land Trust does not oppose dams, Byrne said his organization does object to projects that take away rural land. He also claimed that SSWD, to date, has refused to disclose information to the land trust or landowners. "South Sutter and the other agencies are hoping this project will grow in the dark," Byrne added. He concluded his comments by requesting the board direct NID staff to investigate the project.

Following Byrne, Sierra Club member Allan Eberhart spoke, pointing to the extensive corridor of preserved lands running from Coon Creek to the Spenceville Wildlife Refuge. "This project is a serious threat -- and a cloud over the property," Eberhart told the board. "South Sutter has not been forthcoming, and this project places the land trust's efforts to raise money in a bind."

Additional information provided by Eberhart claims the project would "undermine the public investment of over $4 million on preserving lands in Placer County, with another $13 million anticipated through the end of 2010." And Nevada County could suffer similar losses, he noted.

On the subject of water rights, Eberhart argued that South Sutter currently doesn't have the rights for their proposed project. "But South Sutter claims they have pre-1914 rights and they are telling other districts they have them," he noted.

In a later statement, Eberhart added several more well-known names -- including southern California giant Metropolitan Water District and Kern County Water Agency -- to the list of water agencies alleged to be funding a current dam feasibility study.

Eberhart focused most of his comments on funding of the project, noting that while southern California interests would be one source, another funding stream could be the pending water bond -- but only if the project has been accepted into an Inter Regional Water Management Plan (IRWMP). According to Eberhart, South Sutter originally approached the Cosumnes, American, Bear and Yuba (CABY) region -- the area where the dam would be built ---requesting that CABY with its IRWMP support the project. When CABY rejected the request, South Sutter approached another region further south in the Sacramento Valley, which adopted the proposed Garden Bar Dam project. Eberhart views this action, without equivocation, as a "stealth water raid."

"DWR said if members (of which NID is one_ of CABY tell DWR they don't want the project -- and that they don't have a say since it has been adopted by another region -- then this will probably stop South Sutter from getting bond money," Eberhart advised. "We will come back to NID to take a position -- that the project has impacts on NID and you have no vote in the matter."

Speaking on behalf of Placer County 5th District Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery, field representative Pat Malberg added her comments. "Jennifer and Supervisor Weygandt [Robert Weygandt, Placer County, District 2] met a week ago and they want to add their voice," Malberg told NID directors. "They are concerned that this is not a good project for Placer County. It affects our conservation plan, a unit that would be impacted and interrupted by such a project."

Malberg asked NID to keep them informed and notify Placer County when South Sutter is scheduled to talk before NID's board.

In response, Director and board president Scott Miller invited all the groups present to return when South Sutter is scheduled to make a presentation to the board. "Then we can make inquiries of SSWD on their project," Miller said. "I can tell you right now that the stance of this board is one against the project," he added.

Director Wilcox further noted that "NID does hold some cards," suggesting that the district could petition the state water board to designate the Bear River as "fully appropriated." "That will stop the process," Wilcox observed.

The Project Proponent Speaks

YubaNet contacted South Sutter Water District and was told by staff that all inquiries surrounding the proposed Garden Bar Dam project are handled by RMC Water and Environment. According to its website, RMC is a California-based environmental engineering company focused exclusively on water. It provides planning and design, funding support, CEQA/NEPA, regulatory compliance, construction and program management services to public agencies and communities.

In a conversation on June 25, RMC Senior Project Manager Steve Brown told YubaNet that South Sutter approached RMC to conduct a "reconnaissance-level investigation" -- essentially a feasibility study -- on the project. "We're in a preliminary state of investigation," Brown said. "We totally understand the issues and concerns and we are dealing now at a feasibility level to see if a project can pencil out."

Indicating that RMC's study will be done by the end of 2010, Brown said South Sutter wants to see if a project is viable, given the market value of water today along with current needs for power and water. He pointed out that a dam at Garden Bar is not a new idea, that such a project first showed up on California's Department of Water Resources maps back in the 1950s. "It was studied in the 60s, 70s, and 80s," Brown said, further claiming that the project "almost went through" in the 1980s. "We're dusting off the old reports to see if there's a project there."

Brown continued to emphasize the lack of information surrounding the project. "Unfortunately, we don't have all the answers yet," Brown said. "But even if we have a project that pencils out, there will be the need for CEQA and NEPA. We understand inundating land like that has potential impacts."

When asked if SSWD has secured water rights for the proposed project, Brown claimed no water rights applications have been filed to date. "At some point, it will be a logical step, but not until after this investigation," Brown said, referring to the feasibility study and adding that pursuing water rights will be the responsibility and decision of South Sutter.

When queried about Nevada County Land Trust's complaints that communication on the project has been difficult and that South Sutter, according to Joe Byrne, "refused to disclose meaningful information to ourselves and other land owners," Brown responded. "No one with the Land Trust has contacted me directly," he said, adding that he was aware of correspondence in the form of a letter from South Sutter to NCLT, disclosing that the water district was in the process of a preliminary investigation and would contact the land trust when SSWD knew more as a result of the study by RMC.

YubaNet also questioned Brown about contacts with NID. He said that SSWD has been in discussions with the water district. "We were to be at a meeting on June 23rd," Brown said, further adding that it was "bumped" to a later date, likely in July. Brown was not sure why the June 23 presentation at NID was changed, but indicated SSWD will definitely settle on a future date. "We just don't have a lot of information yet," he cautioned.

"We are trying to do the best we can and we are not trying to avoid anyone," Brown said at the close of the interview with YubaNet. "We just don't know if it's worth going down those roads yet. And even if it does work from a cost benefit, there will be numerous hoops to jump through. We look forward to working with NID, the land trust and anyone else who has concerns at the appropriate time."

Editor's note:

"Apparently, South Sutter Water District doesn't need the water it already has. For the third straight year, SSWD is planning to transfer 10,000 acre-feet to State Water Contractors (and two of those years were dry years).

"SSWD's proposed Garden Bar development on the Bear River would have no benefits for the local area, but most of the impacts would be local. SSWD is going into the water speculation business, at the expense of Nevada and Placer Counties. Meanwhile, the Delta is in crisis from lack of inflow and outflow and from grossly excessive Delta exports. For all these reasons, further diversions on the Bear for the purpose of selling water to southern California should be quickly and forcefully rejected."
Chris Shutes, FERC Projects Director and Water Rights Advocate - California Sportfishing Protection Alliance


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