Shades of green in power struggle
LONE PINE, Calif. -- In an arid Eastern Sierra region where people have had a keen appreciation for water since Los Angeles raided their supplies nearly a century ago, a new water war is brewing.
But this time the combatants are locals: A hunting club is battling a geothermal plant for control of an aquifer beneath the southern Owens Valley’s lava flows and desert scrub.
The hunters view the aquifer as the lifeblood of their 50-year-old private club, Little Lake Ranch, and its spring-fed wetlands hugging U.S. Highway 395.
Their opponent, Coso Operating Co., sees the aquifer as a storehouse of the 4,800 acre-feet of water it will need each year to continue running what it calls environmentally friendly steam-driven turbines already providing about 250,000 homes with electricity.
Coso’s hydrologists estimate the aquifer contains about 5 million acre-feet of water. But in a report to county planners, lawyers for the ranch argued that Little Lake is only about 3 feet deep and because of that, even a small decrease in water level could have serious ramifications for vegetation and wildlife.
The power plant operation, which netted $50 million as recently as 2004, also generates about $5 million in annual tax revenues and royalties for rural Inyo County. That’s about 5% of its $80-million annual budget. The median household income in the county, where about 18,000 residents are scattered across 10,000 square miles, is about $35,000, according to U.S. census figures.
In the middle are county officials who must decide whether to grant Coso’s application to build pipelines and pump water nine miles across the desert from the aquifer to the power plant, which, after 20 years in operation, is running low on well water.
“It’s a tough one,” said Inyo County Administrator Ron Juliff. “If there was ever an issue that could get this valley really stirred up, this is it.”
The majority of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, he said, tends to support Coso, which is situated within the high-security China Lake Naval Weapons Testing Center. After all, Juliff said, the hunters have been standoffish from the rest of the community for years. “We’re talking about 22 guys who fenced off 1,200 acres out there,” he said. “Then we never heard from them again until there was trouble.”
The board is expected to make a final decision some time next year.
Company officials say they plan to monitor regional water levels, including those at Little Lake, and respond if they fall too low.
“We anticipate a significant monitoring and mitigation program,” said Joseph Greco, western region vice president of Caithness Energy, which owns the power plant.
“The amount we are looking at taking is a very, very small percentage. We are hopeful that through the environmental review process, any questions people have will be resolved.”
In the meantime, each of Little Lake Ranch’s 25 current members has promised to contribute $10,000 to a legal defense fund.
“You get a good sense of what’s at stake in this fight from the air,” said club member Bruce Ivey, banking his single-engine plane over the highly seismic zone a few thousand feet below.
On Little Lake Ranch, geology runs wild. Mossy springs ooze from the base of sharp-edged lava cliffs and pool in the shade of elms and sycamores. Natural caves scoured by wind and rain overlook rugged canyon lands. Thousands of ducks and geese slide over tranquil shallows in the shadows of cinder cones streaked red and orange. The ground sparkles with shards of volcanic glass left by ancient Paiutes making tools and arrowheads.
The Inyo County Board of Supervisors, Ivey said, is being “forced to gamble on risking the environmental value of Little Lake in order to sustain the revenue stream from a geothermal plant.”
“They are in a tough position,” he added. “So are we.”
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Owens Valley Committee, have jumped in on the hunters’ side to protect the 1,200-acre property, which is held sacred by Native Americans whose ancestors festooned hundreds of lava boulders with vivid petroglyphs.
Local Native American shamans are allowed access to the carefully guarded property to conduct spiritual ceremonies. Most of the rock carvings are variations on an age-old autumnal rhythm at the wetlands: waterfowl, deer, bighorn sheep and men who hunt them.
Hydrologists hired by the hunting club fear that any draw-downs in the underground water levels may cause the area’s natural springs to go dry in 20 years.
A company spokesman said the geothermal plant has operated safely and efficiently for two decades, and Coso remains committed to monitoring and mitigating any effects on water levels at Little Lake and the surrounding area. The plant, Coso officials note, generates energy without pollution-causing fossil fuels.
“We have been careful stewards of the environment and this very important geothermal resource, and responsible members of the community,” said Alan Maltun, the company spokesman.
Water has long been a touchy subject in this region, about 160 miles north of Los Angeles.
After the Lower Owens River’s water was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, the river’s massive catch basin, Owens Lake, evaporated into vast salt flats prone to sending up choking dust storms.
Later, after groundwater pumping by Los Angeles between 1970 and 1990 destroyed additional habitat in the Owens Valley, L.A. agreed to restore the Lower Owens River to compensate for the damage.
That restoration project, however, continues to be disputed in Inyo County Superior Court.
“The Little Lake battle transcends our ability to hunt,” said Little Lake Ranch lawyer Gary Arnold. “We are waging this fight not just to preserve hunting as a way of life, but to save this oasis in the High Desert because of the wildlife that depends on it for survival.”
Little Lake was a swamp until a former owner dammed stream flows in 1905. The lake was later leased to members of the duck hunting club at Little Lake Ranch who nearly disbanded in 1972, after an earthquake plugged up the springs that sustain the reservoir.
The hunters bought the property in 1980 after clearing sediment from the springs and drilling a new well to replenish the 90-acre lake.
Today, the ranch is a rustic retreat for mostly wealthy Southern Californians who go there to hunt and, in collaboration with numerous wildlife agencies, enhance the grounds by channeling stream flows, planting native trees and brush, and picking up trash that blows in from U.S. 395. The membership fee is $50,000, and annual dues are $3,500.
The ranch’s culture is summed up in the furnishings of its gathering place, a ranch house den featuring a fireplace, a gun rack, well-worn furniture and glass-enclosed wall displays of mounted ducks and geese shot on the grounds.
A sign hanging over a doorway pronounces: “We interrupt this marriage to bring you the hunting season.”
Coso, on the other hand, warns that failure to continue operating its geothermal plant, which is being sold by New York-based Caithness Energy to ArcLight Capital, a Boston-based investor group, would result in valuable “green” resources being wasted.
Richard Bate, a tall, intensely focused retired lawyer who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor as well as the Normandy invasion, expressed a similar argument about Little Lake.
Surveying the primitive landscape from a chair on the ranch house porch, Bate, who joined the club 50 years ago, said, “Initially, we come here for the duck hunting, then for the camaraderie. Eventually, it’s for the opportunity to preserve such a gorgeous place as this.”
Soon county supervisors will take up this green versus green dispute.
But as Juliff, the Inyo County administrator, put it, no matter what the supervisors decide, “We expect to get sued.”