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By Kim Harris
Managing Editor 

Lake Elsinore says 'No' to LEAPS

Council votes to oppose project in unanimous vote

 

Last updated 4/11/2019 at 1:28pm

Kim Harris

Pechanga Tribal Councilman Russell "Butch" Murphy speaks before the Lake Elsinore City Council, Tuesday, April 9, providing background on the Pechanga Band's reasoning behind its formal opposition to the project.

In front of a packed house, Lake Elsinore City Council went on record as opposing Nevada Hydro's proposed Lake Elsinore Advanced Pump Storage project, or LEAPS, during its Tuesday, April 9, meeting in a unanimous vote with all council members present.

Following more than 60 minutes of public comments, the council acted on the staff recommendation to oppose LEAPS.

While the council went on record with its opposition, the project consisting of an energy generation and storage project designed to help stabilize electric infrastructure and maximize the use of all forms of renewable energy, could still be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, something that is of concern to the council and city residents.

The discussion led off with a brief presentation on the project by Deputy City Attorney David Mann who explained how pumped storage works and how the LEAPS project would affect the city.

"Advanced pump storage has been around for a long time," Mann said. "There are about 40 of them in the United States and the fundamental principles of advanced storage are surprisingly straightforward even though the projects are quite involved in terms of the technicalities of them."

According to Mann, projects such as LEAPS start with a lower body of water, usually a lake that is already there, and are typically near a mountain or ridgeline that can hold an upper reservoir. A tunnel is constructed between the reservoir and the body of water. At the bottom of the tunnel is a reversable turbine. In the instance of LEAPS, water from the top reservoir, which would be built in Decker Canyon, flows down and turns the turbine and goes into the bottom reservoir, which in this case would be Lake Elsinore. The powerhouse for the project would be about the size of a football field and located 300 feet underground near Grand Avenue and Santa Rosa in the Lakeland Village area.

"I believe it is fair to say that those property owners over there are the ones who would be affected most by construction," Mann said.

Mann said that once the project is up and running as proposed, it would create about 500 megawatts of electricity.

"That equates to enough electricity for between 400 and 500,000 homes," he said, adding that the turbines could run about 12 hours at a maximum.

To connect to the grid, the LEAPS project would have 32 miles of high-power transmission lines inside the boundaries of the Cleveland National Forest that connect to existing power transmission lines around the Lee Lake area or the Alberhill substation if approved by the California Public Utilities Commission to the north and by U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton to the south.

"Based upon the information we currently have, it is the staff's recommendation, the council takes a formal position to the LEAPS project subject to conditions," City Manager Grant Yates said to cheers and applause from the crowd.

Public shares comments

The discussion on the LEAPS project showing on council's agenda quickly rallied members of the STOP LEAPS Facebook group who showed up in full force at the meeting to take advantage of public comment time to get their point across.

Twenty-nine people submitted requests for public comments. Many shared their opinions on the matter, including Pechanga Tribal Councilman Russell "Butch" Murphy, who provided background on the Pechanga Band's connection to Lake Elsinore as well as the concerns regarding the LEAPS project and the basis for the group's formal opposition to the project.

Murphy said the Pechanga people have always been in Lake Elsinore and that presence continues even now. According to Murphy, the Luiseño territory spans roughly 2,000 square miles to include most of western Riverside County and some of southwestern San Diego County, and that Lake Elsinore is at the heart of the ancestral territory. He said that the tribe has reservation lands about 4.5 miles from the hot springs, just a block from the Lake Elsinore Cultural Center.

"Pechanga echoes the city's concerns," he said, before outlining the Pechanga Band's specific concerns. "The project as proposed will impact at least four traditional cultural properties that are considered sacred to the Pechanga Band and all Luiseño people, including Lake Elsinore itself and the surrounding area which is tied directly to the creation story of the Pechanga people."

Murphy said that in addition to the known and unknown cultural impacts too include ceremonial items and lands the project was fraught with public safety and environmental challenges.

"The project will create a dam above the city holding approximately 5,700 acre-feet of water, creating a massive flood risk to all city residents," he said. "As the city may know, dam safety is a major concern in this state following the horrible dam crisis in California's central valley.

Murphy asked what assurances the city had for the dam to withstand earthquakes, what types or assurances were in place to protect the city against the potential release of that water stored in the dam from approximately 1,600 feet above the city should the dam fail.

"It creates a major fire risk due to the more than 32 miles of overhead transmission lines in the Cleveland National Forest," he said. "As the city knows, the Holy Fire seriously impacted the city and had the LEAPS project been in construction the fire would have burned upward of 40% of the project, including the transmission lines. What assurances have been given of the increased fire risk associated with the proposed transmission lines and the associated extra load that would need to be carried when the transmission systems of SDG&E and SCE.

"This is a risk to the entire community," Murphy said.

Other concerns from community members included fire risk, water quality, marine life and even potentially unsightly power lines.

Nevada Hydro addresses concerns

Nevada Hydro Project Manager Kierstin Ross also took to the podium to give a presentation addressing some of council's and the public's concerns. Other members from Nevada Hydro present donated their time to Ross so she could address those concerns over a 12-minute period.

Ross began with an update to where Nevada Hydro currently is in the FERC application process.

"I wanted to assure you all that we are still in the early stages," she said.

According to Ross, FERC is in the process requesting additional information needed to approve and accept Nevada Hydro's license application.

"The reason I bring this up is that as of right now, the project is largely in a conceptual stage," she said. "We get a lot of really good questions from yourselves as well as members of the community that we are not quite able to answer yet. However, the next phase in our FERC process would be receiving an REA, Ready for an Environmental Assessment Notice. This would kick off an additional stakeholder input period where the public and local government agencies would get the chance to participate in the process and would largely shape the remaining design of the project as well as to help inform our decisions going forward."

Ross said that Nevada Hydro looked forward to "circling back around" and addressing all of the questions in greater detail as the company continued to move forward in the design process.

Ross addressed three issues on the council's agenda: the project operating only when the lake's elevation is at least 1,240 feet, the project specific water quality mitigation measures and the community benefits including compensation for property taken in the project construction, enhanced recreational opportunities on the lake and contribution to lake operations expenses.

Water level "1,240 feet above sea level is considered the minimum optimal level of the lake, and in our recent settlement with EVMWD, we made the commitment to provide 15,000 acre-feet of water at commencement of the project and make up for evaporative losses going forward," Ross said.

Ross explained that the city and EVMWD have a longstanding agreement to try and maintain the 1,240-foot optimal level. To forward this goal, EVMWD has contributed approximately 5,000 acre-feet of water per year and had not been successful at maintaining that optimal level due to the drought and other factors.

"We don't speak on behalf of the district, but on behalf of LESJWA experts they have uncovered that they believe the initial 15,000 acre-feet contribution, coupled with between 9-10,000 acre-feet of reclaimed water... will potentially sustain the lake level indefinitely going forward," Ross said.

She said that was positive news but that she had to defer to the experts to expand on the thought, but that Nevada Hydro was optimistic that the 1,240-foot level was obtainable.

"As you know we have recently submitted Dr. Michael Anderson's research report that evaluated our 15,000-acre foot contribution in addition to the effects of just operating the project daily," Ross said of the questions regarding water quality mitigation measures.

She said that Anderson's report found in three different models that the additional water and daily operations of the project itself would have a positive effect in drought, normal and surplus conditions for the lake.

"What's more exciting about his research is he identified that the project infrastructure itself provides an access point to the water to attach additional water treatment technologies," she said. "The example that he provided was injecting oxygen into the outflow returning back to Lake Elsinore."

Ross said that Anderson was optimistic that the technologies could make a difference in water quality of the lake.

"We have retained him to continue his research," she said, adding that Nevada Hydro is continuing to work with LESJWA and local agencies to define additional supplemental research on attached technologies that could benefit the water quality of the lake.

"The LEAPS project relies entirely on the lake and we realize that this is a huge asset to this community," she said. "We are 100% committed to research the lake, the water levels and be good stewards to the environment here and to the community."

Ross also addressed the issue of compensation to include property taken in the project construction, enhanced recreational opportunities on the lake and contribution to lake operations expenses. She said that some surface level benefits had been presented to the community, including construction jobs, benefits to the lake and a variety of others.

"We look forward to working with you to identify other benefits to the community," she said, adding that benefits come in all shapes and sizes. "We just invite the opportunity for those discussions and evaluating them in-depth for the city."

Ross said that Nevada Hydro was listening to questions and concerns from the community and was looking to provide more meaningful answers "down the road."

Council makes themselves heard

Following public comments, council took a tough stance against the project citing environmental, aesthetic and safety concerns.

Councilwoman Natasha Johnson said that she wanted to publicly address and thank Nevada Hydro for attending the meeting. She said that the company had been "quite difficult and maybe a little bit elusive" in hearing the community's comments and concerns.

Directly addressing Ross, Johnson said that she and Manos sit on the energy subcommittee and that Ross had not been privy to all those conversations. She thanked Ross for sharing the information with council regarding the project being in the conceptual stage and that Nevada Hydro was going to shape and design going forward with an REA notice and kick off a stakeholders meeting.

"There are some big challenges with that," Johnson said. "The evaporation process going forward, we need to know what metric is being used for the evaporation rate. We have been told that 1,240 (feet in lake levels) is obtainable forever, but we don't know a metric is, what that evaporation rate will happen."

Johnson said that she read Anderson's report, which was more than 200 in-depth pages and that she understood it was favorable to the project, but that it did not address some big concerns.

"These concerns are something that we have talked about from the inception of this conversation," Johnson said. "Turbidity, water quality, our fishery and ecology, shoreline changes and overall what happens to our lake in dissolved oxygen."

She said while Anderson's report did discuss dissolve oxygen, it only talks about how it could possibly improve the lake.

"Dissolved oxygen, as anyone here from the lake knows, is how ecology works," she said. "So, working with us and the statement you made, that's a difficult statement."

According to Johnson, she and Manos had met with Nevada Hydro to discuss the city's concerns in 2018, and despite giving the corporation representatives a checklist of what was needed, those issues were not addressed.

"I would love to hear that you have addressed our concerns and are giving us meaningful answers in your statements as you said. But, unfortunately, that is not the case; that is definitely not the case," Johnson said, adding that it had been a trying time to stay hopeful in conversation with Nevada Hydro and that the company would do the best things for the city's residents and hear the city's concerns.

"We actually gave you a white paper of things you needed to do, and at that point, we were basically a 'check the box' item and you moved on," Johnson said, adding that she was in full support of opposing the project.

Manos said that the city had been monitoring and actively pursuing answers regarding the project, but for him it was just a formality. He said there were a number of issues related to the project and that there was communication from FERC asking project proponents to amend the proposal so that it would operate at a water level of 1,235 feet, not the 1,240 feet which is the minimum water level for good water quality in Lake Elsinore.

"What it does is demonstrate to us that FERC doesn't have an understanding that at 1,235, we had fish jumping out of our lake," he said. "That is a severe impact to our jewel, the center of the universe as far as the city goes."

Aesthetic, economic, water quality and environmental impacts were also of concern, Manos said.

"There are impacts here that cannot be mitigated. There are dangers that are created here that cannot be mitigated that much is clear," Manos said, adding that there was no way the project as proposed was supportable in "any way, shape or form."

"We have to oppose it. We don't have to just oppose it, just to go ahead and gain anything. We have to oppose it and fight tooth and nail. It's not just 'no,' it's, 'hell no,'" Manos said to cheers and applause.

Manos said that while the city had to follow protocol to follow, he had heard enough.

"Staff said you have to look at the pragmatic situation," he explained. "The whole world is looking for energy storage, and I'm afraid they don't care about us. We are going to go and fight. We are going to fight for everything, but we also have to be smart."

Councilmen Robert Magee and Tim Sheridan, along with Mayor Pro Tem Brian Tisdale, also voiced their support of opposition to the project.

What are the next steps?

Kim Harris photo

Lake Elsinore Mayor Steve Manos listens to a presentation on Nevada Hydro's proposed Lake Elsinore Advanced Pump Storage project during the April 9 Lake Elsinore City Council meeting.

FERC can still approve the project, despite the objections of the city, but according to Manos, it was up to the city to make clear to the federal government that all the problems the city saw wrong with the project.

"If the federal government is going to say 'yes' and ignore us then they have to make mitigations, they have to go ahead and do that," he said. "We have to be very strong. We have to peer review all the studies. We have to spend money on lobbyists. We have to go ahead and do all of this."

Manos said that the city couldn't do all those things without going to the public first and telling them the city planned to fight.

"We are going to spend money to fight, and that is all there is to it," he said adding that he couldn't promise a happy ending.

"I'm really concerned," he said. "I'm generally concerned about that."

The deadline for Nevada Hydro's studies and submittals to FERC is June 30.

Kim Harris can be reached by email at [email protected]

 

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