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Water Pipeline Plan Sparks Concern : Projects: Opponents fear huge proposal in south Orange County will harm canyon lifestyles. Others call it vital.


The $625-million underground pipeline would be Orange County's largest ever, tall enough to hang a basketball hoop at NBA regulation height and still have three feet to spare and wide enough to deliver 260 million gallons of water a day.

Its main section would be called the Cleveland Tunnel, an eight-mile project 2,200 feet beneath Bedford Peak in the Santa Ana Mountains and the Cleveland National Forest. Eighteen miles in all, the pipeline would link the western tip of the Colorado River Aqueduct--Lake Mathews in Riverside County--with two other underground pipes near Irvine. The imported water would satisfy the demands of future developers and a south Orange County population expected to grow by 100,000 in 20 years.

If approved by the board of the huge Metropolitan Water District of Southern California--an agency known for monumental water projects--the pipeline would be paid for by water users in its 5,200-square-mile service area from Ventura to San Diego County.

Backers say the project not only is vital for growth, but would serve as an alternate source of imported water in an emergency, particularly an earthquake, which could damage water lines and interrupt service. South Orange County is almost totally dependent on imported water.

"I think it's critical, I'm a major proponent of it," said Peer Swan, president of the board of directors of the Irvine Ranch Water District, the county's largest district. "Right now, all the water coming into this area comes from one water plant. If we had an earthquake that affected that plant, then South County is out of water."

But residents of the rural Modjeska, Williams and Silverado canyons in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, who live near the tunnel exit, worry about what the project might do to their semirural lifestyles.

Although construction probably wouldn't start for several years, talk of the tunnel has reached a fever pitch among residents of Orange County's canyons in recent weeks as a deadline loomed this week for comments that will help shape the project's environmental impact report.

A 24-hour-a-day construction project virtually in their back yards that could last four years might destroy the quiet ambience of the narrow, rustic canyons, some residents said in a letter to MWD officials.

"We don't have any chance of stopping this. There's no way in the world," said Toni Doscher, a postal worker who has lived in Silverado Canyon for four years.

"(But) we would like it to be the least disruptive to the animals and the trees. This is the only place left in Orange County where you can still see a puma . . . where your grandkids can come up and see a creek with frogs in it. . . . We are doing our best to keep it that way," said Doscher, who belongs to the Intercanyon League, an organization of about 900 residents from the three canyons.

The plan calls for 200,000 acre-feet of water a year to flow by gravity through the pipeline from Lake Mathews, a reservoir near Corona built in the 1930s that stores Colorado River water.

The water would then flow into a connection just north of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station that would tie into two other major feeder pipelines: the Allen-McColloch line and the South County pipeline.

The Cleveland Tunnel would enter the 136,000-acre national forest through Bedford Canyon in Riverside County and emerge just north of Williams Canyon in Orange County, the smallest of the local canyons and home to only 11 families.

The pipeline is among $7 billion in capital improvement projects on the books over the next decade for MWD, the Los Angeles-based water agency that has built 130 miles of tunnels to distribute water throughout Southern California and whose board chairman is John V. (Jack) Foley of San Juan Capistrano, manager of the Moulton Niguel Water District in Laguna Niguel.

"I want to keep showing an effort for this project," Foley said. "South County really benefits from it. This project also allows us to bring water in at high (pressure) that allows us to fill all the reservoirs and shut down the pump stations," which saves energy costs.

Although the project hasn't been approved yet, preliminary work is under way and MWD is already acquiring land for the pipeline's right of way, including a citrus grove near Lake Mathews where a treatment plant will be built to make the lake's water safe for drinking.

Perhaps the engineering hallmark of the project will be tunneling through the mostly hard rock under the forest. Geologist John Waggoner of Yorba Linda, the project's consultant, said work crews will start on both sides of the mountains and meet in the center, much like the tunnel project that connects England and France via the English Channel.

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