The City of San Luis Obispo thinks it needs more water to accommodate future planned growth. In order to get more water, the City proposes to raise the height of the Salinas Dam by 19 feet. While that might not seem much, the scope of the project is immense. The capacity of the dam would be increased 75% from 23,843 acre feet to 41,792 acre feet. The project would result in periodic inundation of an additional 395 acres of wetlands, riparian habitat and oak woodlands, including 16,050 linear feet of stream habitat, 73 acres of pine-oak woodland containing 1639 coast live oaks, 633 blue oaks, and 198 valley oaks, for a total of 2470 oak trees, plus 469 gray pines. Also included in the periodic innundation zone are 35.6 acres of willow scrub/woodland, 3.9 acres of mixed riparian woodland, 12.2 acres of riparian forest, and degradation of 22.1 acres of riparian woodland understory owing to periodic innundation.
The area to be inundated by the raised dam and disturbed by the relocation of recreational resources contains many species of special concern, such as the Southwestern Pond Turtle and the Two-Striped Garter Snake, as well as several federally and state endangered and threatened species, including the Bald Eagle, California Condor, White-tailed Kite, American Peregrine Falcon, Least Bell’s Vireo, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, California Red-legged Frog. Although the City claims that there are no threatened Steelhead Trout below the dam, recent evidence suggests otherwise, and until the dam was built, they were abundant in the Salinas River.
In connection with the project, virtually all of the current recreational facilities surrounding the lake will be moved, with new roads to be built and considerable cut-and-fill operations to be undertaken.
In order to accommodate the increased capacity of Santa Margarita Lake, the dam will need to be substantially strengthened and the spillway will need to be armored.
Before the City can undertake the project as planned, it must obtain an extension of time to complete the beneficial use granted in its water rights permit in 1941. The State Water Resources Control Board will shortly issue its decision regarding granting the City another 10 years to complete the project.
In June 1998, the City certified a Final Environmental Impact Report. But the FEIR does not adequately address concerns about adverse impacts to habitat above and below the dam, increased seismic vulnerability because the of greatly increased volume of water to be impounded behind the dam, adverse impacts to downstream water users, and the growth-inducing effects of the added water supply. To some extent, the State Water Resources Control Board has recognized these deficiencies and is expected to order additional studies before it will grant the City an extension of time to increase the height of the dam.
The City’s Plans To Mitigate for Lost Habitat Are Inadequate and Illusory
The City recognizes that the law requires it to mitigate the detrimental impacts to the environment that the dam project will cause. However, it has not yet developed any tangible mitigation plans for the loss of riparian habitat and wetlands, and admits that any habitat restoration or creation will not reach fruition until 5 to 15 years after they are begun. The endangered and threatened species will have nowhere to be in the interim, and may be lost forever.
Although the City claims it will develop a mitigation plan that will rely on restoring and/or enhancing native habitats on nearby private lands with willing landowners, thus far no land has been contracted. Currently, the only property the City is attempting to acquire is 49 acres of steep, not-in-kind habitat out of the Salinas watershed and 15 miles from the project, property that cannot provide the habitat that will be destroyed by the project. Even worse, there is some evidence that the City in fact will attempt to avoid its obligation to replace destroyed habitat by offering monetary compensation to public or private agencies, as if money can mitigate destruction of habitat and species.
Recently the City received a Dam Safety Evaluation Study undertaken in order to meet the requirements of the California Department of Water Resources, Division of Safety of Dams requirements. This report concludes that the FEIR did not accurately consider the magnitude of earthquake possible along the Rinconada fault. The study concluded that the dam will be seismically unsafe unless it is strengthened beyond the degree of strengthening contemplated in the FEIR, increasing the cost of the project by $11,000,000 or over 50%.
The City Did Not Plan To Mitigate for the Decreased Amount of Water it Would Be Releasing Downstream
Although the City claims the increased size of the dam will have no impact or only minimal impact on the river downstream, both the State Water Resources Control Board and the National Marine Fisheries Service has determined otherwise. In its draft order, the SWRCB concluded that the raised dam will contribute to the overdraft in the Paso Robles groundwater basin. The SWRCB also noted that it could not conclude that there were no Steelhead in the river below the dam or that the project would not adversely impact any steelhead that might be present.
In addition, the National Marine Fisheries Service is also concerned with the downstream impacts of even the current operation of the Dam and is requesting the SWRCB to order interim releases of water.
This Project Will Induce Growth and Development.
The stated purpose of the project is to provide the City with an additional 1650 acre feet of water per year (AFY). The City projects that it will require 3861 AFY of water by the year 2022 to meet growth projections. This project is projected to supply 43% of that anticipated need. That 1650 AFY could easily be supplied by water conservation and by buying up state water rights that are currently available. In fact, however, the project will supply an additional 2000 AFY for increased reserves, which can potentially provide for more growth than the City claims.
The FEIR projects that raising the dam will provide water to accommodate a portion of the City’s planned growth between now and 2022. The FEIR projects water need at 145 gallons of water per person per day, which would allow for 5000 additional people. However, the current water usage is 123 gallons per person per day. If current water use remains the same, the water contemplated by this project can accommodate an additional 12,000 people. If the 2000 AFY is used, then over 25,000 additional people could be accommodated.
Marge Erickson is an attorney (for 20 years) in Santa Barbara with a keen interest in environmental issue. She is a board member of the Santa Barbara Permaculture Network and volunteers legal help for local environmental organizations.