A water district agreed Wednesday to change its design plans and lower three proposed water tanks that environmentalists feared would mar views for hikers and nature enthusiasts in the canyons north of San Clemente.
The water district said it needs to build the tanks -- two that would hold 1.5 million gallons of drinking water and one that would hold 1 million gallons of recycled water for irrigation -- for the next phase of the 4,400-home Talega development.
The Santa Margarita Water District had planned to slice 35 feet off a hilltop to make room for the tanks, which will supply water to more than 1,000 new homes in Talega.
The tanks would have been visible along the trails in the 1,200-acre Rancho Mission Viejo wilderness reserve, a stretch of canyon land dotted with mariposa lilies and elderberry and a habitat for the endangered southwestern arroyo toad.
At a meeting Wednesday, water district officials and the developer agreed to move the tanks about 24 feet closer to the homes, meaning only the top two feet of the tanks would be visible to hikers. They also agreed to landscape the area with coastal sage, which will eventually hide the tanks completely.
"It's a relief, that they are willing to do this when we have very little leverage," said Laura Cohen, executive director of the Rancho Mission Viejo Land Conservancy.
The conservancy feared that because the water district is not constrained by municipal zoning laws, it would push forward with the plan, which district officials had said would be the least intrusive and most cost-effective.
The conservancy had suggested burying the tanks, but district officials cautioned that this would double the $2-million cost of above-ground tanks. Although the developer will pay to build the tanks, those costs would be passed on to homeowners, said Laer Pearce, a water district spokesman.
Also, the elevation of the tank site would allow the district to rely on gravity to move water to its customers. "You get reliability with gravity," Pearce said. "It's always there and it never breaks down."
It seemed the debate had ended after the district and developer rejected burying or moving the tanks.
The only other possible location nearby is a habitat for the endangered California gnatcatcher, and placing the tanks there would force the water district into an arduous permitting process, Pearce said.
Pat Hayes, general manager of Talega Associates, said, "This has stirred up enough concern ... that we said, 'Let's do the right thing. We'll absorb the cost of re-engineering' " seven streets and 51 lots that will be repositioned.
"From our point of view it's worth it to us just to make people happy and move on with our plans."