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Fish Odor Could Halt Water Project

April 03, 2002|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Orange County water official is asking his own agency to reconsider a project that is expected to kill thousands of fish--and send the resulting putrid odor into Villa Park and Orange.

"Subjecting the residents of Orange and Villa Park to the stench of rotting fish for up to eight months is completely unacceptable to me," Denis Bilodeau complained in a letter this week to the Orange County Water District's acting general manager. "I am requesting that the staff reanalyze this project, halt construction if necessary, and develop a solution to the fish-kill problem."

Bilodeau represents the two cities for the district, which provides water for about 2.2 million people in northern and central Orange County.

The project involves draining Santiago Pits to install a pumping station at the bottom. Although many of the fish in the pits would be moved to nearby lakes, agency officials concede that the odor will be noticeable to nearby residents.

"To be honest, preventing a fish smell will be virtually impossible," Cindy Ferch, a senior public affairs specialist with the district, wrote in a March 29 letter intended for 800 homes within half a mile of the pits. "At best, we can only try to mitigate the duration and intensity of the smell."

The Santiago Pits are former sand and gravel mines now used to hold water that then percolates into the aquifer. The large pits are up to 150 feet deep with sheer walls and can hold about 4.6 billion gallons of water. They are fed by the Santa Ana River and imported water.

The $5-million project would allow the district to pump water to other percolation fields, said Craig Miller, the district's director of recharge and wetland operations.

But first, much of the water must be pumped out of the pits, a process that began in March. And therein lies the problem. The pits are filled with carp, catfish, bass and shad. The water district is depending on the state Department of Fish and Game to move some of the fish and is leaving some parts of the pits underwater. But some fish will die, and the smell could start this month, according to Ferch's letter.

"It's inevitable that some will die and there will be some odor," Miller said. He said the agency will use boats, boons and a conveyor to pull dead fish from the water. Lime and other odor controllers will be used. Variables such as wind conditions, temperatures and how quickly the fish die will come into play, Miller said.

"Mother Nature is holding all the cards," he said.

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