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Inyo planners OK pumping of aquifer

March 12, 2009|Louis Sahagun
  • Ancient Native American petroglyphs overlook Little Lake in Inyo County, whose planning commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to let a geothermal plant pump water from the aquifer that feeds it.
Ancient Native American petroglyphs overlook Little Lake in Inyo County,… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

INDEPENDENCE, CALIF. — It puts out enough electricity to light 250,000 homes and generates a large portion of the tax revenue that funds school districts, a hospital and emergency response in rural Inyo County, east of the cresting Sierra Nevada.

With its own wells in decline, Coso Operating Co.'s geothermal plant was granted a county permit Wednesday to pump water from an aquifer that nourishes a 50-year-old private hunting club, Little Lake Ranch, and its spring-fed wetlands adjacent to U.S. Highway 395.

Coso, which has produced $135 million in property and sales taxes over the last 20 years, had warned that its financial benefits for the county would wane if the permit was denied.

County planners voted unanimously to grant the conditional use permit over the objections of the hunting club, environmentalists and local water commissioners, who argued that the project could cause irreparable damage to a place that still has a frontier quality.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, March 14, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Inyo County water: An article in Thursday's Section A about a water battle in Inyo County said that Owens Lake had been pumped dry in 1913. That was the year that water from the lake was first diverted to an aqueduct serving Los Angeles. The diversion caused the lake to become dry after several years.

For some, the debate evokes images of the bitter political struggle that ensued when nearby Owens Lake was pumped dry in 1913 to provide water for a burgeoning Los Angeles, 160 miles away.

The current controversy has taken on a sharply adversarial tone, one that underlines what Bruce Pavlik, professor of biology at Mills College in Oakland, described as "just the beginning of a new era of hard bargaining over renewable resources -- solar, wind, geothermal -- in fragile ecologies. It's like being held hostage."

"The corporate discussion in proposals to develop these clean, renewable energy industries carefully emphasizes their benefits and ignores their ultimate environmental costs," he said. "But risking the sacrifice of an intact ecosystem for energy development is often a false choice. There are almost always alternatives to explore."

Coso, a privately held company, said the project will boost its electricity output enough to power 50,000 more homes, help address climate change by curtailing the need for carbon-based fossil fuels and reduce dependence on foreign sources of energy.

"We're environmental stewards, and we would not do this at any cost to the environment," said Joe Greco, senior vice president of Terra-Gen Power, one of Coso's parent companies. "What is good for the state and the country is to ensure a renewable source of energy is enhanced."

During an eight-hour planning commission hearing Wednesday, Coso reminded the panel that a final environmental impact report determined that its proposal to extract water from the aquifer and construct a nine-mile pipeline, with mitigation and monitoring, would have no significant effects. The "early warning system" would include 20 wells that would be continually measured by Coso.

If things go awry in the 100-square-mile Rose Valley aquifer basin, in local farm wells, at the hunting club's 1,200-acre retreat at Little Lake -- or for endangered animals, including the desert tortoise -- Coso would be required to reduce or stop pumping.

The firm originally wanted to pump 4,800 acre-feet of water per year. Instead, the commission approved extraction of 3,000 acre-feet in the first year. Barring unforeseen problems, the amount could be increased to 4,800 within one year.

The water is used to create steam to drive turbines, as well as to cool the system.

Opponents expressed concern about the viability of the safeguards. "It's the fox guarding the chickens," said Oxnard attorney Gary Arnold, who is representing the hunting club. "If Coso was mischievous, we would never know."

Rex Allen, chairman of the Inyo County Water Commission, would not go that far.

"This is a high-stakes poker game and, in this case, the guys on the other side of the table want to enhance the efficiency of their operation as cheaply as possible," Allen said. "The really crucial point, however, is that Inyo County is dependent on Coso for a large part of its budget. The county is absolutely petrified of losing money that goes to support schools."

Coso's proposal is supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the county's water department and Inyo County School District officials.

In a letter to county supervisors, Inyo County Supt. of Schools Terry McAteer said, "In these years of a state fiscal crisis, it is essential for a vibrant Coso Geothermal Plant to exist so that they can continue to assist our school districts."

The firm's unfolding plans have prompted creation of an unlikely alliance -- hunters, Audubon Society members, botanists and cattle ranchers -- to try to defeat the proposal, or at least persuade Coso to invest instead in new air-cooled systems that would reduce its need for additional water.

Coso Chief Executive Jim Pagano told the commission that conversion to an air-cooling system, which would cost between $96 million and $216 million, was not an economically or environmentally efficient option.

Opponents' concerns are based, in part, on a hydrology model included in the environmental impact report showing that the Coso project could siphon off as much as 10% of Little Lake's water in less than 18 months without significant effects. Yet, there has been no scientific analysis showing that the wetlands and wildlife could survive such a drawdown, particularly in unusually dry years, Arnold said.

"We're disappointed with the commission's decision," Arnold said, adding that the opponents intend to appeal the decision to the Inyo County Board of Supervisors.

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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