After spending $250 million on designing, planning and building the Seven Oaks Dam, engineers are ready to close the gates and start operations at the massive structure. But a few small things are in the way: rats and wild plants.
The 550-foot-high dam near Redlands was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the crown jewel in the Santa Ana River flood-control project. It was designed to protect downriver residents against the 100-year flood and was supposed to be operating by now.
But last March, as the dam neared completion, the corps was slapped with a lawsuit filed by environmental groups seeking to protect the endangered San Bernardino kangaroo rat, whose habitat lies directly in front of the dam. The suit also seeks to protect two endangered plants, the Santa Ana River woolly star and the slender-horned spineflower.
The dam is expected to reduce, or eliminate the need for, flood insurance for tens of thousands of homeowners in Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. But now it looks as if homeowners will have to pay insurers $200 to $800 a year each for a while longer.
Trying to act quickly in the face of the lawsuit, the corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began work on what is called a consultation, which is an environmental assessment of options for reducing the impact on endangered species.
But results won't be ready until January.
Ways to lessen the impact include buying more property or allowing larger amounts of water to be released from the dam, said Noah Greenwald, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, one of the three plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.
"Basically, the dam is already built and we recognize that," Greenwald said. "What we would like is more mitigation. It's a pretty sad situation. We have three endangered species dependent on flooding, and they built a dam to stop flooding."
The rats and the plants need open sandy areas that flood regularly, and changing that environment to a highly controlled one would destroy the habitat, the center argues.
The kangaroo rat stands about 9 1/2 to 14 inches tall and is a nocturnal seed eater. Though no formal surveys have been conducted, ecologists estimate the rat's habitat is a wide area of at least 3,000 acres in front of the dam.
The corps would not comment on the lawsuit, but spokesman Herb Nesmith said it would decide whether it needs to mitigate the dam's effects on the rat and the plants based on its consultation.
"We are not indifferent to the animal or the plants," Nesmith said.
The corps plans to hold dedication ceremonies in November at the dam, but it does not know when it can start operations.
The environmental groups, which also include the California Native Plant Society and the Tri-County Conservation League, accuse the corps of failing to provide a consultation as soon as it knew that the Fish and Wildlife Service was considering the kangaroo rat for the endangered list.
Environmentalists argue that the corps knew about the effort to put the rat on the endangered list long before construction began. "There was advanced indication that they couldn't have built this," Greenwald said, "yet they steam-rolled the project through in order to avoid mitigation."
Meanwhile, residents and businesses along the river must continue to buy flood insurance.
Most of those affected are Orange County residents living in the river's flood plain from the city of Orange through portions of Santa Ana, Fountain Valley, Westminster and Huntington Beach.
"Because the corps cannot give us a guarantee to operate the dam as planned, it's affecting residents' flood-plain insurance," said Elayne Rail, a spokeswoman for Orange County's public works agency.
The intent, she said, was to list the project, as soon as it was completed, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency as protection against the 100-year flood, an action that then would lead to lower flood insurance rates or none at all.
In Fountain Valley, the corps' recent improvements along the river, including a new pump station, reduced the flood threat and lowered insurance rates, said City Manager Raymond H. Kromer.
"Our whole effort has been trying to save our residents from paying flood tax insurance, but we still have to understand what environmental problems are out there [near Seven Oaks Dam]," Kromer said.
"We've been advocating that we should be out of the flood insurance zone for some time now, but the government doesn't think so."
Downriver cities, including Fountain Valley, have worked closely with the corps, FEMA and the county flood control district to help support the Santa Ana River project, which is scheduled for completion in 2006.
Once the dam is operational, the corps will turn its attention to the river banks in the Santa Ana Canyon and then Prado Dam, which straddles Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Improvements to that dam include raising the banks and spillway, the chute where water is released.