Politics & Government

Everyone weighs in on new California dam

WASHINGTON -- Serious kibitzers are now weighing in on a long-simmering proposal to construct a $1.3 billion hydroelectric facility at Don Pedro Reservoir east of Modesto.

This week, San Francisco officials entered the match. Along with environmental groups, San Francisco insists on playing an important role as plans proceed for the literally uphill venture known as the Red Mountain Bar pumped storage project.

"(San Francisco) has a direct and substantial interest in any effects on its own facilities," San Francisco City Attorney Dennis J. Herrera advised the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Monday.

Herrera specifically cited Red Mountain Bar's potential impacts on Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, San Francisco's distant water supply in Yosemite National Park. More broadly, San Francisco's expression of interest shows how complicated the project is likely to become.

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts envision Red Mountain Bar as a new way to wring more electricity from the Tuolumne River. Environmentalists see it as a potential threat.

"We are very concerned about the impacts of the proposed project to the surrounding environment and unique species," wrote Eric Wesselman, executive director of the Tuolumne River Preservation Trust.

The environmental group conveyed its worries in a recent filing with federal energy regulators, specifically citing potential threats to plants, animals and the Tuolumne County "recreational experience."

The proposed project includes constructing a new 1,700-foot long, 465-foot high dam across a ravine above the current Don Pedro Reservoir. Don Pedro water would be pumped through a tunnel to the new 244-acre upper reservoir. The water would then be released to produce electricity during peak demand times.

A new 47-mile transmission line would carry the electricity to users.

"These projects are uniquely suited for generating power when demand for electricity is high," the two irrigation districts state in an informational document.

Irrigation district spokespersons could not be reached Wednesday.

The irrigation districts filed their first proposals with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2006, and secured preliminary approval to commence studies the following year. The earlier preliminary approval expired in 2009, prompting the irrigation districts to apply for another preliminary permit on Feb. 1.

"The applicants submit that they have diligently pursued development of this project," the 62-page application stated.Taken together, the preliminary tests, studies, surveys and plans are expected to cost between $15 million and $20 million, according to the application. Officials estimate the overall project will cost aboutl $1.3 billion.

Herrera wants San Francisco to be declared an "intervenor" in the Red Mountain Bar application. If granted, this would give the city more influence. Intervenors can participate in hearings, file briefs and, if necessary, appeal regulators' approval of a project.

The Tuolumne River Trust and the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center have both likewise sought to be declared intervenors in recent weeks. Neither environmental group has yet taken a formal position on the Red Mountain Bar, though both emphasize concerns.

"The construction of a large dam and pumped storage facility has the potential to impact thousands of visitors to the lake," noted John Buckley, executive director of the Twain Harte group.