GRASS VALLEY, Calif. Oct. 22, 2010 - In spite of numerous concerns expressed by property owners regarding potential impacts to wells, Nevada Irrigation District's board recently (Oct. 13) approved a project to rehabilitate its Newtown Canal. NID directors called for adoption of the mitigated negative declaration and Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Program (MMRP) but fell short of adding well assessment mitigation measures.
At last week's board meeting, Project Manager Adrian Schneider gave a brief presentation on the environmental review process and a chronological history of community outreach before asking for approval of the project. According to Schneider, the present state of the canal does not meet current and future demand for reliable water service in the area. The district claims the canal is "at capacity" and a freeze exists for future irrigation and treated water hookups.
Currently, the 16-mile canal serves 187 raw water users and supplies 3200 treated water customers through the Lake Wildwood Water Treatment Plant.
The original 2008 CEQA document called for re-routing roughly 1900 feet of the ditch in a pipeline located along Newtown Road -- in addition to abandoning the current ditch -- at the cost of $1.7 million. However, staff withdrew this request following extensive negative feedback from property owners in the area. "Based on public input and direction from the board, we realized we needed to revisit other options," Schneider told NID directors.
The approved project includes widening the canal and encasing some segments of the existing ditch, due to limited access. A nine-foot wide access path will also be constructed adjacent to the canal. According to a district staff report, the approved project is estimated to cost approximately $500,000.
"What About Impacts to Our Wells and Property"
At last year's November 18 board meeting, directors postponed approval of the Newtown Canal project because of property owner concerns that water wells in the area could be adversely affected. At that time, NID offered to monitor these wells for two years. However, when the district decided against the original re-routed pipeline design, management opted to scrap the well-monitoring plan.
This didn't sit well with several property owners present during last week's public hearing on the project. In addition to over twenty public responses received by NID -- one, in particular, from local attorney Allan Halley on behalf of numerous property owners -- four Newtown Canal neighbors spoke before NID directors to again express specific concerns about impacts to water wells and trees.
On the subject of wells, at issue is the amount of underground seepage from the Newtown ditch that recharges adjacent wells -- and how that process might be affected by encasement of certain sections of the canal. While none of the residents offered objections to the project itself, they asked for assurances from NID staff and directors that any impacts to their water wells would be mitigated -- which meant the district would need to have prior monitoring data on the wells in question.
"We are the largest section that is going to be piped," said Mary Bennett-Meyer, who resides on property owned by Patricia Dunne. "It [piped section] is directly adjacent to our well and it [well] is extremely shallow. Our concerns are that you will impact our water source," she added. NID plans to encase approximately 280 feet of the existing exposed canal currently running through Dunne's property.
Property owner Lorraine Webb, who also lives along the canal, offered similar comments. "I know you believe property owners don't have rights to seepage, but we have a continuously charged aquifer here for years," she said. "I have a concern that you will be getting additional water from encasing, water that you didn't have before -- water that was originally going to our aquifer." Webb also worries that too much encasement will cause the area around the canal to 'desertify.'
Residents adjacent to the canal within the project area rely strictly on wells for their domestic water needs. NID's Newtown Canal rehabilitation project does not include the addition of a treated water line. The closest one is five miles away.
Area resident Bob Vitavec expressed unease with how the environmental study addressed some very large pine trees located on his property and within the project area. "I'm concerned these gigantic trees will be cut down -- these are the biggest trees on my property," Vitavec said, later adding that the pines were "why I bought the property." In response, Project Engineer Adrian Schneider said the only option would be to re-route the canal around the group of trees. "As it stands now, we would take these pines out according to the [CEQA] documents," Schneider advised Mr. Vitavec.
Patricia Dunne pointed out that while two of her oaks are protected under the environmental mitigations, other smaller oak trees are at risk of destruction during the project. "We have some upcoming oaks not full size yet but that are very established," Dunne said. "If you wipe them out, we won't have any in the future."
Ms. Bennett-Meyer also objected to the necessity of a 20 foot easement for a three-foot diameter replacement pipe encasing a section of the canal along her property. "I object to a 20 foot easement for only a three-foot pipe," Bennett-Meyer added. "It will take up all of the land between the edge of my pond and our houses. It's a huge easement on our property."
Director Scott Miller made several queries as to why NID couldn't route a pipeline down Newtown Road, while leaving a minimal amount of water in the ditch to serve existing customers. Ms. Webb added that this design is what residents along the canal had requested from the start. Staff responded, arguing that the original design would require maintenance of two separate structures -- the pipeline and the canal. In addition, lower flows in the canal posed potential water quality issues. And finally, staff pointed out, the recommended project would save NID over $1 million.
On the Issue of Canal Seepage and Well Recharge
The question of canal leakage and how much it contributes to neighboring wells has long been a contentious debate between property owners and NID. In fact, the district is currently embroiled in a lawsuit over certification of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on its DS Flume Replacement Project. Among several claims, the lawsuit challenges the EIR's findings on canal seepage -- and the dewatering impacts to adjacent property by encasing an earthen canal similar to the Newtown ditch.
In its Raw Water Master Plan, NID acknowledges that canal seepage -- or "system losses" as it is referred to in the plan -- is fairly consistent with canals like those in the district's labyrinthine delivery system. The plan cites a U. S. Bureau of Reclamation estimate of 30 percent seepage loss for an unlined earthen canal. In addition, a study included in NID's Banner Cascade Pipeline Project environmental documents further reinforces the existence of seepage. According to the evaluation, canal seepage can contribute substantially to groundwater recharge.
And while U.S. Geological studies point to the uncertainty in quantifying how much surface water contributes to the recharge of wells, such uncertainly also reinforces why property owners along the Newtown Canal want to see monitoring of their wells prior to construction of the project. Such monitoring, in the very least, would allow for important baseline data. Instead, NID is relying on older well installation records and logs.
The project's environmental document states that encasement of the 280 foot stretch along Ms. Dunne's property, for example would result in an estimated 5 percent loss of seepage. The initial study also states that this percentage is likely a "high estimate" for the three encasement portions of the canal.
But it is clear that property owners present at the public hearing weren't satisfied with NID's conclusions regarding seepage loss due to encasement -- or with the fact that the MMRP's did not include stipulations for well-monitoring.
"I think you should engage and pay for surveys of wells since you are doing the project," Ms. Dunne said to NID directors and staff. "If you are saving on not doing a $1.4 million project down the road, why can't we do well tests for $50,000," Dunne later asked project manager Schneider. He responded by saying that pump tests are easy to perform but isotope studies -- which determine the amount of well recharge from canal seepage -- are far more expansive, as much as $100,000.
Project Approval Wasn't Unanimous
Troubled over issues raised by Bennett-Meyers and Dunne, Director Nick Wilcox cautioned that he would support the mitigated negative declaration only if it included an assessment for their well. "Before I could support this document, we would need baseline monitoring of that well," Wilcox advised. "I think there is potential for damage. If there is potential for harm -- diminution of well production -- then we would need mitigation."
Wilcox further reminded staff that NID treated water service is not available in the area of the Newtown Canal project, should the project impact Bennett-Meyers' well.
Concerned that the project documents fail to adequately define key design components -- and fall far short of addressing concerns over potential impacts to area wells -- Director Nancy Weber weighed in heavily against approval of the project. "Are we going to roll over these folks again?" Weber questioned Schneider and those staff present involved with the project. "We need to go forward with a guarantee that altering [encasement] the canal will not impact wells."
Weber cited both NID's Raw Water Master Plan and the Cascade Canal leakage study as reasons to question the conclusion that seepage loss due to encasement on the Newtown project would likely be less than 5 percent. She also advised that monitoring should not be limited to just the Dunne well. "We don't have the credentials to make the decision on monitoring," Weber told staff. "If you monitor one well, you need to monitor the others."
"We need to realize what is our responsibility to people whose land we cross and realize the value of land with regards to their water," Weber continued. "It is time for NID to realize we have an impact and therefore need to do the studies and do the remediation. Either our board decides -- or the community makes it happen."
Ultimately, Directors Weber and Wilcox voted to oppose both approval of the project and adoption of the environmental documents.
Following the final vote, Schneider advised property owners that the district would bring the issue of wells and canal alignment back to the next board of directors meeting (Oct. 27).
According to legal counsel Jeff Meith, even though the mitigated negative declaration has been adopted, NID can still approve something legally binding that addresses wells and alignment issues.
NOTE: While the agenda for NID's next board of directors' meeting (9 a.m., Oct. 27) is already posted on the district's website, it fails to include any agenda item -- as promised by staff -- addressing the issue of wells and alignment for the Newtown Canal rehab project.
The issue is listed on the district's Engineering Committee meeting agenda for 1:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 27.
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