The San Diego County Water Authority on Friday unveiled plans for a $500-million project to construct a new reservoir at one of five sites to store enough water to meet the area's needs during a six-month emergency.
Water officials said the new reservoir is necessary because the county imports 90% of the water it uses through hundreds of miles of pipelines and canals. They said the county now falls 40,000 acre-feet short of water needed to sustain residents during a six-month emergency, such as a major pipeline outage caused by an earthquake or other natural disaster.
According to the agency's projections, the shortfall is expected to grow to 85,000 acre-feet by 2000 and 143,000 acre-feet by 2030 unless another reservoir is built. An acre-foot amounts to 325,872 gallons, enough water to meet the average household needs of two families for one year.
The new reservoir will provide enough water to meet 75% of normal demand, said water authority spokesman Byron Buck at a Friday press conference.
However, the water authority's plans are sure to stir controversy, because one of the proposed sites for the reservoir is Pamo Valley, a pristine and uninhabited area north of Ramona. Local environmental groups, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined forces in 1989 to block an earlier proposal by water officials to build a dam there.
Environmentalists argued that flooding the valley, which has been spared from development, would displace many species of wildlife and destroy rare habitat.
In addition to Pamo Valley, water authority chairman Mike Madigan said the agency proposed building the new reservoir facility at three other North County sites and one in East County. Two sites, Lake Wohlford in North County and San Vicente Reservoir in East County, are already used for water storage and could be expanded.
Two new sites at Guejito Valley, east of Lake Wohlford, and Moosa Canyon, north of Escondido, are privately owned. Madigan said water officials do not have a preferred site. Officials considered 27 sites before deciding on the final five, Madigan said.
Undoubtedly, the most controversial of the proposed sites is Pamo Valley, which is owned by the city of San Diego. It was purchased in 1925 and set aside expressly for a reservoir. Although had consulted environmental groups like the Sierra Club and San Diego Audubon Society during the site selection, Buck said, environmental activists voiced surprised at Friday's announcement.
A Sierra Club spokeswoman said the group knew nothing of the water authority's proposal and declined to comment until the group has studied it. Karen Messer of the Audubon Society said she did not know about the authority's proposal until she was contacted by a reporter.
"I'm very surprised by this. They actually included Pamo Valley? That sounds like the resurrection of an idea that has already been shot down," Messer said.
At the press conference, Buck acknowledged earlier attempts to build a dam at Pamo Valley and said it is the most environmentally sensitive of the proposed sites. It was included in the proposed sites because it would be the least expensive to construct, Buck said.
Moosa Canyon, one of two sites in private hands, would be the most expensive to build, Buck added.
Water authority officials expect the review process, including environmental impact reports, to take up to three years and cost $10 million. Construction could begin in 1995, if all state and federal environmental hurdles are overcome, and would take up to five years to complete.
"This is a major issue that will be before the water authority for a long time," Madigan said.
Madigan said state regulations require local water officials to assure adequate water supplies during emergencies.
Buck said most of the $500-million cost of the project is expected to be financed through bonds already being sold by the water authority. However, he said individual water customers will eventually be charged a minimum of $3 a month to help pay for the project.
The County Water Authority is made up of 24 local agencies and serves about 2.5 million customers. According to water officials, the county's last major reservoir was built in 1953, when San Diego County's population was 435,000.
The five proposed reservoir sites will be discussed at Thursday's meeting of the agency's board of directors. Public hearings will be scheduled in the next two months, before an environmental report is drafted. Additional public hearings will be held after the report is written.
Federal law requires the water agency to choose the site or sites that would suffer the least environmental damage, which would then be reviewed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA.