Angling for More Water : Fish and Game Makes Federal Case Out of San Gabriel River Power Plants

Times Staff Writer

The state Department of Fish and Game has lost its first bid to change more than 80 years of management practices by other agencies that it says have nearly dried up a four-mile portion of the San Gabriel River.

The department was unable to persuade the Water Rights Division of the state Water Resources Control Board to require operators of a Pasadena hydroelectric power plant and the developers of a proposed hydroelectric facility to guarantee continuous releases of water into the river from reservoirs created by three dams, so it is taking its case to a federal agency.

Fish and game officials say that too much water is being diverted from the river for generation of electricity, and what water is released into the stream comes too irregularly to sustain wildlife.


Life in One Small Pool

The only aquatic wildlife surviving in the four-mile section of the river between Morris Dam north of Azusa and Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale is crowded into a small pool at the mouth of San Gabriel Canyon, said David Drake, a fish and game fisheries biologist.

The lower portion of the river receives its flow from flood waters during the rainy season and releases from dams upstream during the summer, Drake said. The result, he said, is a stream bed that is dry and rocky most of the year.

Fish and game officials are taking their fight to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, (FERC) where they could be opposed by the State Water Board, as well as Los Angeles County, the city of Pasadena and the San Gabriel Hydroelectric Partnership, developer of the proposed hydroelectric power plant.

Minimum Flow Asked

Next month, the federal agency is to consider granting permanent operating permits for the two plants. The Pasadena plant is operating with a temporary permit. Fish and game officials have asked the federal commission to deny the permits unless minimum water flows are guaranteed, a demand commission officials said is allowed by law.

“We thought they (fish and game) would drop their complaints” after the state water board action, said Larry Harsha, supervising engineer for the Pasadena Water and Power Department. “But judging by the tone of their letters to FERC, they are coming on even stronger.”

Dean Shumay, director of the federal commission’s environmental analysis division, said his agency may look favorably on the fish and game proposal. In similar cases, the commission required strong environmental protections requested by state agencies before permits were issued, Shumay said.

Officials of the existing and proposed plants contend that the objections have put them in what they call a Catch-22 situation. They said they have no control over whether water is released to the river or diverted for use in their plants.

DPW Has Control

The county Department of Public Works (DPW) controls water released into the upper San Gabriel River through three dams it operates.

Fish and game officials acknowledge that the DPW, not the operators of the power plants, controls the water. But they say that the only way they can try to change long-standing water management policy is to contest the permits and force the plant operators to pressure the DPW to release more water into the river.

“This is our first and last opportunity” to rehabilitate this portion of the river, said Krishan Lal, a fish and game biologist in Region 5, the agency’s largest and most populous wildlife management area. It will be years before either plant must again have permits renewed, Lal said.

DPW officials defended their water policies and said that they are charged by the state not only with protecting the environment, but also with providing flood control and water conservation.

Those tasks can be accomplished only by maintaining current management practices, said Ron Henricksen, head of the DPW’s electrical division.

Statewide Effect

Calvin Wire, a California Energy Commission analyst specializing in small hydroelectric projects, said the Department of Fish and Game is not singling out the San Gabriel River projects for criticism.

“They are rebelling quite strenuously over small hydros” throughout the state, Wire said. “They have pretty much had enough.”

Jim Schuler, hydroelectric expert for fish and game, said that his agency is seeking ways to require any new hydroelectric plants throughout the state to ensure continuous releases of water into the rivers on which they would be built.

“We have lost over 25% of stream mileage since the turn of the century” because of dams, irrigation and hydroelectric projects, said Phil Pister, a fishery biologist for fish and game in Mono County, an area where as many as 70 projects have been proposed. “We may lose more if projects are not carefully built.”

700 Plants in the Works

More than 700 hydroelectric plants are proposed or being built around the state, according to the California Energy Commission.

This is not the first time a dispute has been triggered over the use of water in the San Gabriel River. In the 1880s, armed skirmishes erupted between farmers and water rights claimants.

Since the 1890s, when the first major dam was built on the San Gabriel River, its waters have been tamed for flood control, water conservation and electrical generation.

Today, the dispute centers on the proposed plant, which would produce enough power to light 1,300 homes, and the Azusa Hydroelectric Plant, owned by Pasadena, which generates about half as much power.

Hopes Unrealized

Fish and game officials had hoped that the Water Rights Division of the state Water Resources Control Board would withhold an operating license for the proposed plant. They also had hoped that the board would take some action against the plant owned by Pasadena.

The DPW already has given its approval to San Gabriel Hydroelectric Partnership, which was formed by several businesses, to build the more than $3-million plant.

Southern California Edison Co. has agreed to buy electricity generated at the plant, which would be built at the foot of San Gabriel Dam about a quarter-mile upstream from Morris Dam.

If a minimum of 25 cubic feet of water per second is released from Morris Dam, water levels in the river should remain high enough to sustain smallmouth bass and other aquatic wildlife throughout the year, Drake said.

Flood Control Diluted

John Mitchell, a department head in the DPW’s water conservation division, said that supplying a steady flow of water to the river would mean that more water would have to be held in reservoirs. That, Mitchell said, would diminish the DPW’s ability to provide flood control because the reservoirs would have higher levels during times when flood dangers are highest.

“The more multipurpose you make a resource, the less use it is to all,” Mitchell said.

Pasadena’s Harsha said that slow water releases would be wasted because the ground below Morris Dam is so porous that the water would quickly seep underground.

In approving the proposed hydroelectric project on Dec. 3, the water board rejected the fish and game request because it was filed late and was not submitted in the proper form, state and DPW officials said.

Andy Launitz, an engineer with the water board, said that his agency would have looked dimly on the proposal even if it had arrived on time and in the proper form.

Cumulative Effect Dismissed

Launitz said that the water board believes that no environmental damage has been caused by the Pasadena plant and that none would be caused by the proposed plant.

He said the water board found no evidence of environmental damage because its own regulations do not require it to look at the cumulative effects of hydroelectric projects.

But the California Environmental Quality Act and a recent series of court rulings empower the Department of Fish and Game to consider cumulative damages when evaluating the merits of a hydroelectric project, Lal said.

Fish and game officials are not giving up.

“If we can restore fish and wildlife to the river, and still meet the need it was intended for, then it is state policy to do that,” Schuler said. “I don’t think we are being unreasonable.”