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Hydro project site is favored by feds

The dam complex above Lake Elsinore would help provide power at peak times. Some call a change of site choice ecologically unsound.

February 01, 2007|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

Federal energy officials have endorsed a controversial proposal to build a reservoir, dam and hydroelectric facility in the Santa Ana Mountains to provide power during periods of peak energy use, a project some environmental groups say will destroy pristine wilderness favored by hikers and hang gliders.

The decision also shifts the planned site from Morrell Canyon to nearby Decker Canyon. The project would allow water to be pumped up to the mountain reservoir from Lake Elsinore at night and released in the daytime to generate electricity during peak power demand.

Analysts with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected plans by the project's sponsors, the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District and Nevada Hydro Co. Inc., to build the reservoir in oak-filled Morrell Canyon near the San Mateo Wilderness Area in Orange County, and instead recommended the Decker Canyon site in Riverside County, which they said would cause fewer disruptions for both wildlife and hikers.

Still, opponents from the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity said the project, which includes a string of power lines that would run through the forest, would target another oak-studded canyon and create environmental havoc, increase wildfire danger and ruin mountain vistas.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Reservoir: An article in Thursday's California section about a proposed hydroelectric project in Cleveland National Forest mistakenly stated that Nevada Hydro Co. Inc. would build and operate the plant. Nevada Hydro and its partner, the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District, would sell the project permit to another company.

"It's an aesthetic blight on an area that's pretty remote right now, and it's something that would be visible from a long way away," said John Buse, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The report issued was a staff recommendation and will undergo an exhaustive review by the federal energy commission in Washington this year as well as potential legal challenges.

The dam in Decker Canyon is one of several big proposals in the works for the segment of the Cleveland National Forest, which is tucked among some of California's fastest-growing counties.

Local transit agencies are floating proposals to build a highway through the mountains to ease the commute from Inland Empire cities, such as Temecula and Corona, to the coastal counties. Water officials also are considering tunneling through the Santa Ana Mountains to deliver water to Orange and San Diego counties.

Established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Cleveland National Forest began as a 2-million-acre reserve stretching from an area southeast of Anaheim all the way to Mexico. It has since been reduced to about 460,000 acres. The forest is home to 22 endangered plant and animal species.

Greg Morrison, spokesman for the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District, pointed out that the forest already attracts more than 850,000 recreational visitors each year.

"There are other compatible uses in the forest: hiking, biking and off-road vehicle use," he said. "We believe this project has a lot less impact than those uses."

Southern California's congested power grid is also in dire need of additional power generating plants, Morrison said. The project would generate 500 megawatts.

If federal energy officials OK the project, he said, the water district plans to sell its permit to Nevada Hydro, which would build and operate the project.

The district would get a share of the electricity sales revenue and use it to buy recycled water to sustain the water level in Lake Elsinore, Southern California's largest naturally occurring lake. About every five years, lake activity shuts down because the level is too low.

"We're trying to improve the lake as a recreational resource and prevent that on-again, off-again cycle," Morrison said. Keeping the water level steady would cost about $4 million a year, he said.

Environmentalists say they're not against power generation but prefer that the projects not be put on what few acres of forest are left in that part of Southern California.

"The problem is, these projects are being placed preferentially on public lands at public expense rather than on other routes that would make more sense and have fewer impacts," Buse said.

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