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Shades of green in power struggle

A geothermal plant wants aquifer's water. A hunting club cites the ecological benefits of protecting Little Lake. It's Inyo County's call.

November 23, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

LONE PINE, Calif. -- In an arid Eastern Sierra region where people have had a keen appreciation for water since Los Angeles raided their supplies nearly a century ago, a new water war is brewing.

But this time the combatants are locals: A hunting club is battling a geothermal plant for control of an aquifer beneath the southern Owens Valley's lava flows and desert scrub.

The hunters view the aquifer as the lifeblood of their 50-year-old private club, Little Lake Ranch, and its spring-fed wetlands hugging U.S. Highway 395.

Their opponent, Coso Operating Co., sees the aquifer as a storehouse of the 4,800 acre-feet of water it will need each year to continue running what it calls environmentally friendly steam-driven turbines already providing about 250,000 homes with electricity.

Coso's hydrologists estimate the aquifer contains about 5 million acre-feet of water. But in a report to county planners, lawyers for the ranch argued that Little Lake is only about 3 feet deep and because of that, even a small decrease in water level could have serious ramifications for vegetation and wildlife.

The power plant operation, which netted $50 million as recently as 2004, also generates about $5 million in annual tax revenues and royalties for rural Inyo County. That's about 5% of its $80-million annual budget. The median household income in the county, where about 18,000 residents are scattered across 10,000 square miles, is about $35,000, according to U.S. census figures.

In the middle are county officials who must decide whether to grant Coso's application to build pipelines and pump water nine miles across the desert from the aquifer to the power plant, which, after 20 years in operation, is running low on well water.

"It's a tough one," said Inyo County Administrator Ron Juliff. "If there was ever an issue that could get this valley really stirred up, this is it."

The majority of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, he said, tends to support Coso, which is situated within the high-security China Lake Naval Weapons Testing Center. After all, Juliff said, the hunters have been standoffish from the rest of the community for years. "We're talking about 22 guys who fenced off 1,200 acres out there," he said. "Then we never heard from them again until there was trouble."

The board is expected to make a final decision some time next year.

Company officials say they plan to monitor regional water levels, including those at Little Lake, and respond if they fall too low.

"We anticipate a significant monitoring and mitigation program," said Joseph Greco, western region vice president of Caithness Energy, which owns the power plant.

"The amount we are looking at taking is a very, very small percentage. We are hopeful that through the environmental review process, any questions people have will be resolved."

In the meantime, each of Little Lake Ranch's 25 current members has promised to contribute $10,000 to a legal defense fund.

"You get a good sense of what's at stake in this fight from the air," said club member Bruce Ivey, banking his single-engine plane over the highly seismic zone a few thousand feet below.

On Little Lake Ranch, geology runs wild. Mossy springs ooze from the base of sharp-edged lava cliffs and pool in the shade of elms and sycamores. Natural caves scoured by wind and rain overlook rugged canyon lands. Thousands of ducks and geese slide over tranquil shallows in the shadows of cinder cones streaked red and orange. The ground sparkles with shards of volcanic glass left by ancient Paiutes making tools and arrowheads.

The Inyo County Board of Supervisors, Ivey said, is being "forced to gamble on risking the environmental value of Little Lake in order to sustain the revenue stream from a geothermal plant."

"They are in a tough position," he added. "So are we."

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Owens Valley Committee, have jumped in on the hunters' side to protect the 1,200-acre property, which is held sacred by Native Americans whose ancestors festooned hundreds of lava boulders with vivid petroglyphs.

Local Native American shamans are allowed access to the carefully guarded property to conduct spiritual ceremonies. Most of the rock carvings are variations on an age-old autumnal rhythm at the wetlands: waterfowl, deer, bighorn sheep and men who hunt them.

Hydrologists hired by the hunting club fear that any draw-downs in the underground water levels may cause the area's natural springs to go dry in 20 years.

A company spokesman said the geothermal plant has operated safely and efficiently for two decades, and Coso remains committed to monitoring and mitigating any effects on water levels at Little Lake and the surrounding area. The plant, Coso officials note, generates energy without pollution-causing fossil fuels.

"We have been careful stewards of the environment and this very important geothermal resource, and responsible members of the community," said Alan Maltun, the company spokesman.

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