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Battle over Little Lake heats up

December 31, 2008 |  4:06 pm

Littlelake

The latest round in the battle between a private hunting club and a geothermal plant for control of an Owens Valley aquifer got underway today with the release of a 900-page final environmental impact report.

The report predicts that the Coso Geothermal Plant’s plan to extract 4,800 acre feet of water per year from the aquifer and construct a nine-mile pipeline could have a significant impact on  Little Lake Ranch, a 1,200-acre retreat on spring-fed wetlands adjacent to U.S. Highway 395 and east of the Sierra’s tallest peaks.

The project could also lead to the spread of invasive species and harm threatened and endangered animals, including the desert tortoise.

The report also points out, however, that Coso plans to implement an array of mitigation measures and to stop pumping if regional water levels fall too low.

That’s not good enough for opponents led by the 50-year-old hunting club, made up mostly of Southern California doctors, lawyers and business owners. Little Lake Ranch  argues the project would suck Little Lake dry, wiping out foraging grounds for migrating waterfowl in a place held sacred by Native Americans and surrounded by lava cliffs festooned with vivid petroglyphs.

The club’s concerns are based, in part, on a hydrology model included in the report, which shows that the Coso project could siphon off as much as 10% of Little Lake’s water in less than a year and half.

“It could easily mean the end of a lake that has been around 10,000 years,” said Little Lake Ranch attorney Gary Arnold. “It would take more than a century for the aquifer on which Little Lake relies to recover from just 14 months of groundwater pumping at a rate of 4,800 acre feet per year.”

Coso officials were unavailable for comment, and Inyo County authorities declined comment pending public hearings on the matter.

In the meantime, opponents have recommended alternatives to groundwater pumping, including technological enhancements at the power plant, where steam-driven turbines already provide electricity to more than 250,000 homes.

The Inyo County Planning Commission is expected to act in January on Coso’s request for a 30-year permit to extract aquifer water it says is needed to supplement its own diminishing geothermal reservoirs. The Inyo County Board of Supervisors will make a final determination later.

Water has long been a sensitive 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.

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: Little Lake, in the Owens Valley. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times.

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