In an abrupt about-face, the Oceanside City Council agreed Wednesday to put plans for the controversial Gopher Canyon dam on hold and investigate an alternative proposal that would involve storing water in a subterranean basin.
The council's unanimous decision to at least temporarily shelve the idea of building a 150-foot-high earthen dam in a narrow gorge east of the city limits comes just weeks after downstream residents protested the project during a December hearing.
Until recently, Oceanside officials had been bullish on the dam, saying it was the only viable alternative to bolster the city's sagging water storage capacity.
But at the recommendation of Deputy City Manager Jim Turner, the city's water guru and a long-time proponent of the dam, the council agreed Wednesday to allocate $200,000 to study the feasibility of storing imported and reclaimed water into an underground basin paralleling the San Luis Rey River near the city's eastern boundary.
"As far as I'm concerned, we need to look for better alternatives than a dam," Councilman Ben Ramsey said after the council vote. "The idea is that we may be able to do a better job without creating a problem out at Gopher Canyon."
Mayor Larry Bagley agreed, saying that the decision "marked another death knell" for the Gopher Canyon dam.
"Frankly, I've always favored storing water in the underground aquifer," Bagley said. "I've never been convinced that the voters support the construction of a dam outside our city."
Residents in the shadow of the dam, planned for a remote backcountry parcel near the unincorporated community of Bonsall, have fought the project since it was first proposed by Oceanside officials a decade ago. Homeowners in the area fear that the dam could burst, sending a wall of water 45 feet high down the canyon, swallowing the homes and horse farms that dot the region.
In addition, homeowners argued that the dam was being pushed by City Hall strictly to bring growth to the San Luis Rey Valley, a booming sector of the city that has been covered with a sea of houses in recent years.
Oceanside officials have historically downplayed the concerns of the residents beneath Gopher Canyon, saying that earthen dams are safe. On Wednesday, Turner reiterated his belief that a dam in Gopher Canyon would pose no danger to residents, but said the time has come to look at other alternatives.
"The feeling is let's consider the other alternative and make sure the council has two projects to look at," Turner said. "That way the council can put the two projects side by side and make a conscious decision as to what's best for the city."
Patti Morris, leader of the group opposing construction of a dam in Gopher Canyon, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Earlier Proposal Dropped
During the early 1970s, the city considered storing its water in the underground basin running beneath the San Luis Rey, but dropped the proposal when mounting fuel prices made the cost of pumping water out of the aquifer prohibitive, Turner said.
In recent months, however, the state Water Resources Control Board and Health Department have shown "an enthusiastic willingness to work with local agencies in the development of local water resources," Turner said in a report to the council. "This new-found willingness has significantly altered the potential" for the idea of storing water underground in Oceanside.
New life has also been injected into the proposal, he said, because it now qualifies for a partial subsidy from the Metropolitan Water District, the umbrella organization that oversees distribution of water in Southern California.
That subsidy, in addition to the increased use of local hydroelectric facilities that create energy from water flowing through the city's giant water mains, could offset the price of treating and pumping water used in the underground basin, Turner said.
While the water would be more costly than that presently used, all indications are that the imported water Oceanside relies on will continue to rise in price, making the proposal all the more feasible, he said.
The third-largest municipality in San Diego County, Oceanside has just enough reserves to keep the garden hoses and kitchen taps of its more than 100,000 residents flowing for only 55 hours if a catastrophe were to cut the area off from the imported water that is its lifeblood.
The ground-water storage system would provide for injecting imported water into the subterranean basin, and treated waste water would be placed in upstream spreading ponds, where it could percolate through the soils.
Aside from reducing the city's reliance on imported water, the system would relieve Oceanside of the need to pump effluent into the ocean, Turner said.
Councilman Walter Gilbert expressed some concern about the possibility of using waste water in the system, saying he remains unconvinced that residents will be willing to drink water that "has come out of a cow barn."