Hydro-energy company wants to build six new reservoirs in Sierra
By JIM MATTHEWS
A private energy development company has proposed a major hydro-electric project north of Bishop. Premium Energy of Walnut has applied for permits to build what is being called a “mini June Lake Loop” on Lower Rock Creek and Wheeler Ridge, building six reservoirs in the area.
Three of the reservoirs are proposed to be built inside the John Muir Wilderness along the top of Wheeler Ridge south of Tom’s Place. The surface acreage of the three reservoirs would be 214 acres, more than Gull Lake and Silver Lake combined (157 acres). The proposal also calls for three reservoirs along Lower Rock Creek that would total 146 surface acres.
Energy would be generated by the “head” created by water flowing downhill in penstocks from the higher elevation reservoirs through the power plants at the lower reservoirs. There would be three penstocks running the four to five miles from the three upper lakes along the east side of Wheeler Ridge to the three lower lakes along Rock Creek. There would be power generation facilities at each lower reservoir. The project would also require the building of new roads for the maintenance of the reservoirs in the wilderness and along with three penstocks running downhill to the lower reservoirs.
According to the application submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in late March, the total electric production capacity of the three power plants would be approximately 5,200 MV (megawatts), or 17,960 GWh (gigawatt hours) per year, enough to power approximately 1,600 homes for a year.
The project is in its first developmental stages, and construction would not begin until at least 2024 if the project is approved, according to Premium Energy’s website.
The hurdles, both environmental and social, the project will have to leap before moving forward are staggering, especially when weighed against the total power generation.
Already there is massive opposition building to the idea from Eastern Sierra Nevada interests. Just a partial list of objections includes the following:
-- The Inyo National Forest would have to approve a major intrusion into the John Muir Wilderness, and this likely could and would not be granted on a local level (or even federal level without an act of Congress). It would require changing the designation of the Wheeler Ridge area as wilderness. A huge contingent of backcountry users would likely lobby against this change.
-- The capturing of rain water and snow-melt on the top of Wheeler Ridge would very likely impact ground water supplies that feed springs and small streams below the upper reservoirs, especially in Swall Meadows area, but all the way down into Round Valley.
-- There could be impacts to deer migration down into Round Valley caused by the three penstocks, potentially blocking the animals entirely. This is perhaps the most important deer wintering area in the Eastern Sierra.
-- Some are already saying this is more water “robbery” in the region by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, even though this is not the LADWP’s project. They are pointing out that currently much of the water captured in the proposed project’s upper reservoirs on the east side of Wheeler Ridge is going into groundwater. They argue this “power project,” is more about water because it diverts this water into Rock Creek, just upstream from Pleasant Valley Reservoir. While there have been no estimates published on how much additional water this would put into the LADWP system, it could be a significant amount. This is a benefit to the LADWP because it has been forced to use significant amounts of Eastern Sierra water for environmental purposes in recent years.
But there are also some seeing this project as a positive for the region in jobs created, additional clean power, and potential additional outdoor recreation activities. Some in the fishing community are looking at the project and see it as a boost to fishing opportunities in the area, if designed with public access and use in mind. They are already pointing out how three small reservoirs on Wheeler Ridge could attract water recreation users, campers, in addition to fishermen. The easily accessible lower reservoirs along lower Rock Creek, ranging in size from 32 to 72 acres could become as popular, or even more popular, as Intake II on lower Bishop Creek.
FERC has not scheduled any hearings or issued any rulings on the project’s preliminary permit proposal.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.