Plans to build a controversial dam and reservoir in a pristine valley near Ramona were buoyed Tuesday when officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced their final decision to issue a permit for the massive project.
Reading from a prepared statement, an Army Corps spokesman said Los Angeles district engineer Tadahiko Ono had studied arguments against the dam and determined that it "is not contrary to the public interest."
"Therefore, the Los Angeles district intends to issue the permit for Pamo Dam despite objections from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency," the statement said.
EPA Could Veto Project
The decision--the latest in an ongoing fight among agencies evaluating the project--means construction of the dam will go forward unless the EPA exercises its legal option to veto it.
Chuck Holt, chief of the corps' regulatory branch, said that once EPA administrators are formally notified of Tuesday's decision, they will have 10 days to decide whether to take steps leading to a veto. If EPA officials do so, the corps may modify the project to address environmental concerns and possibly avoid a veto. Holt said he did not know whether the corps would be willing to make such modifications.
Terry Wilson, an EPA spokesman in San Francisco, would not comment on the likelihood of a veto, saying only that the environmental agency "has taken the Corps' action under consideration."
Use of the veto process--a step authorized under the Clean Water Act--is extremely rare. Wilson said he is aware of only three cases where the veto has been used in Region 9. Corps officials said their research indicates that there have been attempted vetoes of only 20 projects nationwide, six of which have been successful.
The San Diego County Water Authority, which has fought for years to build the dam and reservoir as a means to store an emergency water supply, applauded the decision and expressed hope that the EPA will not further challenge the project.
"We're one more step down the road," said Francesca M. Krauel, chairwoman of the Water Authority board. "But we still have one major hurdle to overcome, that is getting the recognition of EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that we have complied with all their concerns and that the needs of the citizens of this area override the biological and environmental impacts that may occur."
Krauel added that if the EPA vetoes the project, the Water Authority likely will challenge that action in court. "We desperately need that dam," she said.
Critics, meanwhile, were dismayed but not surprised by the announcement.
"I think that the Corps of Engineers never met a dam they didn't like and that they have ignored legitimate concerns about endangered species . . . and continue to insist that Pamo Dam is the only way to solve San Diego's water reliability problem," said Emily Durbin, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Pamo Dam task force. "I'm confident that the EPA has made a more unbiased consideration of the project and will hold firm in their belief that there are practicable alternatives."
A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, another agency critical of the dam, said it does not appear that the corps has resolved lingering concerns about the Water Authority's program to create new habitat to compensate for the damage the project would cause.
Important Habitat Endangered
"There is a significant quantity of high-value habitat in Pamo Valley that will be lost and will not be offset by the proposed mitigation," wildlife biologist Nancy Gilbert said.
The project would consist of a 264-foot-high concrete dam across Santa Ysabel Creek and would flood 1,800 acres in Pamo Valley, an isolated area noted for its diversity of wildlife. The Water Authority says the project--which would cost almost $107 million according to a new estimate by the Corps of Engineers--is vital to provide San Diego with an emergency water source in a drought or other calamity.
The Corps of Engineers agrees, noting that the environmental destruction caused by the project would be outweighed by its benefits.
But the EPA says the region's water needs can be met through construction of a less environmentally damaging alternative--raising the existing San Vicente Dam. Citing federal regulations, EPA officials say a permit for Pamo Dam should not be issued given the existence of this "practicable" alternative.
On Tuesday, corps officials countered that raising San Vicente was not a viable option because it would cost $50 million to $55 million more than building Pamo Dam, figures that are disputed by the EPA.
"We had our own engineers review the cost estimates and, given that we are in the business of building dams, we feel pretty confident about the numbers," said Cliff Rader, a member of the corps' regulatory branch. "That higher cost is the main reason San Vicente is an unacceptable alternative."
$136 Million to $161 Million
An analysis commissioned by the EPA concluded that Pamo Dam would cost $136 million to $161 million to build and that increasing the size of San Vicente would cost $110 million to $154 million.
In any event, EPA spokesman Wilson said cost alone may not be sufficient grounds for the corps to disqualify San Vicente as an alternative to building Pamo Dam.
"The regional administrator will have to evaluate that in making her decision," Wilson said. "But we've been saying all along that they could accomplish their purpose through other alternatives, like the San Vicente proposal, without harming the environment and at a reduced cost."