Corps of Engineers Reaffirms Support to Build Pamo Dam

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, rejecting arguments by federal environmental officials who believe Pamo Dam should not be built, has reaffirmed its controversial decision to issue a permit that would allow the $86-million project to go forward.

In a letter received by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, the commander of the Corps of Engineers' Los Angeles district said a lengthy report by the EPA had failed to sway his belief that the environmental costs of the dam are outweighed by its benefits to the San Diego region.

"I evaluated your report dated May 11, 1987, regarding the proposed project," Col. Fred Butler wrote in the letter to Charles Murray Jr., assistant regional administrator for the EPA in San Francisco. "I did not find in the report any significant information that had not previously been made available to me."

Consequently, Butler said, a permit clearing the way for construction of the dam in a pristine Ramona valley will be issued unless EPA officials in the next five days request that a formal negotiation process between the two agencies begin. The EPA has final authority in the event that no compromise is possible and could, if necessary, veto the corps' go-ahead.

Discussion Still Possible

EPA spokesman Terry Wilson said he could not predict whether the EPA's regional administrator, Judith Ayres, would move to initiate discussions with the Corps of Engineers under a procedure the two agencies use to resolve disputes. But Wilson did say that the EPA's position on the massive water project, which has been bitterly fought by environmentalists because it would destroy 1,800 acres of lush habitat, has not changed.

"Our feeling was and still is that there are other alternatives to the dam and, given that, (Pamo) shouldn't go forward," Wilson said. "Obviously, they disagree."

In the report sent to the Corps of Engineers last week, the EPA outlined numerous objections to the dam, which would hold 130,000 acre-feet of water for use during drought years or in the event that an earthquake severed the aqueducts that bring imported water to San Diego.

Specifically, the agency argues that there are practical alternatives to the dam that would inflict far less damage to the environment while meeting the region's needs for an emergency water supply. Among those alternatives, EPA says, are boosting the height of the existing San Vicente Dam to increase its storage capacity, and the use of groundwater.

The San Diego County Water Authority says both alternatives are impractical. The EPA disagrees and notes that, under the Clean Water Act, a permit cannot be issued for a given project if such alternatives exist.

Habitat Loss Not Made Up

In addition, EPA officials worry that an environmental mitigation program proposed by the San Diego County Water Authority would not compensate fully for habitat losses caused by the dam being built in Pamo Valley, an isolated area frequented by the endangered least Bell's vireo and several other birds that are candidates for the protected species list.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also has recommended denial of a project permit and already has requested that the corps' decision be reevaluated at a higher level.

Apparently, however, none of the environmental concerns has persuaded officials with the Corps of Engineers to rethink their decision.

"Colonel Butler has looked over the information provided by EPA and did not see anything new that would cause him to change his mind," corps spokeswoman Susan Kranzler said. "There was simply nothing in their report that caused him to alter his decision."

Kranzler said the corps "fully expects" that the EPA will request further discussions on the decision. If negotiations fail to resolve the dispute, the EPA's final authority to veto the project could come into play.

The Corps of Engineers, which oversees development along the nation's wetlands and waterways, first announced the intent to issue the permit in April. While conceding that the environment would be damaged, officials concluded that the project's negative impacts would be outweighed by its benefits, including emergency water storage and recreational opportunities on the giant reservoir the dam would create.

The project would consist of a 264-foot-high concrete dam across Santa Ysabel Creek and would flood Pamo Valley, which contains a vast amount of rare streamside habitat and is home to a wide variety of wildlife. A companion water reclamation project would reclaim treated wastewater to replenish groundwater supplies in the nearby San Pasqual Valley. A hydroelectric project also has been proposed.

Voters approved revenue bonds for the project in November, 1984.

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