Water experts address community concerns on water and LEAPS

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Editor’s note; This story is part of an ongoing series exploring the proposed Lake Elsinore Advanced Pump Storage, or LEAPS, project. In this article, Valley News will explore concerns regarding water quality and the proposed addition of 15,000 acre-feet or billions of gallons of water raised by those opposed to the project .

As Nevada Hydro’s LEAPS project continues to move through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s licensing process, many opposed to the project are questioning everything from how water quality will be affected to where the group would purchase water should the need arise. But one water expert said those concerns, while valid for those who raised them, should not be an issue.

Tim Moore, an independent water consultant and Basin Monitoring Program Task Force member, working with the Lake Elsinore San Jacinto Watershed Authority since 2006, said if everything is handled correctly when brokering the deal, the additional 15,000 acre-feet of water LEAPS, or Lake Elsinore Advanced Pump Storage, promises to add to Lake Elsinore’s namesake lake could only benefit the lake.

A recent independent study completed by Dr. Michael A. Anderson of the University of California Riverside and submitted to FERC confirmed that the addition of water purchased through the State Water Project would be beneficial to the overall health of the lake.

Healthier water?

As a shallow, eutrophic lake, fluctuating lake levels due to evaporation and the most recent drought, Lake Elsinore has been plagued with everything from high concentrations of dissolved solids, nutrients, chlorophyll and algae blooms depriving fish of oxygen and resulting in numerous fish kills. According to Anderson’s report, the addition of high-quality SWP water could help the lake, which was placed on California’s Clean Water Act Section 303(d) list in 1994. In 1998, the lake was listed as “impaired” due to excess nutrients, organic enrichment, low dissolved oxygen and sedimentation.

According to the study, the high-quality SWP water has significantly less concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen than current sources including the San Jacinto River, runoff and reclaimed water, all factors leading to the report’s conclusion of a “healthier lake.”

But those opposed to Nevada Hydro’s flagship project designed to respond to the growing need for reliable, renewable electricity and to help meet California’s emissions reductions programs signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown, including members of Lake Elsinore City Council, who voted unanimously April 9 to oppose the project as proposed, and the STOP LEAPS group are worried that Nevada Hydro is just telling them what they want to hear.

STOP LEAPS water expert and former Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District employee George Cambrero is one of those who believes that residents are only being told what they want to hear. As a lifetime resident of Lake Elsinore, Cambrero said that he remembers a time when he could run around the lake. He conceded that adding water into the lake could benefit water quality, but he doesn’t believe it would be enough to make a big impact on the health of the lake.

“Will it make the lake healthier? If it is done properly, yes. But it is going to take a long time,” he said. “You have to consider everything going into the lake and how it will affect everything from fish to plant life. You have to do just enough to control the algae. Too much and it could add to the sediment at the bottom of the lake and create a multitude of other problems.”

Cambrero said that Lake Elsinore holds approximately 30,000 acre-feet of water and with the evaporation rate of 12,000 acre-feet per year combined with Nevada Hydro’s plan to purchase “up to 15,000 acre-feet of water” the net gain to the lake is only 3,000 acre-feet of water.

“I am looking at everything, including maintenance and constant monitoring. This has to be done to ensure the health of the lake,” he said. “These are things that need to be considered.”

During the April 9 city council meeting, Councilwoman Natasha 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.”

While some of Johnson’s and the city’s concerns such as how the shoreline would change are valid, other concerns may not be, according to Moore and Anderson’s report.

Anderson’s report, which catalogued efforts over the years to address lake water quality, said“the fundamental challenge to the overall health and viability of the lake is the lack of sufficient water to offset evaporative losses and periodically flush out salts and nutrients.”

Moore said the addition of 15,000 acre-feet of water would only benefit the health of the lake and the plants and fish that make Lake Elsinore their home.

“At 1,240 feet above sea level and above, the lake is just healthier,” Moore said. “When it falls below 1,240 conditions deteriorate pretty rapidly. You are going to evaporate 12,000 acre-feet of water annually, period. Whether the lake is full or it starts out empty. So, the effect of 12,000 acre-feet of evaporation is much more important when the lake is only half full than when it is full.”

According to Moore, replenishment water only comes around naturally once every 10 years and that historically the lake has dried up and remained that way several times, most recently in 1950, when it remained dry until 1958. Lake Elsinore loses 4 feet of elevation or 3.9 billion gallons of water per year. That number equates to 11 million gallons a day.

EVMWD’s water reclamation project – a program designed to offset evaporation, not refill the lake – adds about 500 million gallons or 5,000 acre-feet of water each year under a legal agreement with the city of Lake Elsinore.

Moore said that as water evaporates, the minerals in the lake concentrate, which is wherein the issues lie. Evaporation and concentrated minerals can cause algae blooms, among other problems. When the water levels fall below 1,235, the health of the lake collapses rapidly.

“It was really bad,” he said in reference to the lake health in the recent drought. “It is not healthy for the lake to fall below 1,235. Frankly, we would prefer it not fall below 1,240.”

He said the goal of the Basin Monitoring Program Task Force is not just to get the lake back to natural conditions but to get the lake to what people want it to be.

“While the projects in place, take the lake back to what it would naturally be, it doesn’t take the lake to where we want it to be,” Moore said. “All that algae you see out there now is not that far from what you would see naturally. If we want it to be better than that, then we have to go beyond the projects that have been implemented.”

Moore said that even with adding reclaimed water to Lake Elsinore, only about half of what is needed to offset the lake’s evaporation rate and that the aeration system placed in the lake in 2007, there is a difference, but not much of one due to the size of the lake.

“I think people want the lake to be better than it would naturally be,” Moore said. “The lake itself is a really difficult natural water body. It is so large, and it is in a really dry area of the country.”

So, with this knowledge in hand, how would a project such as LEAPS benefit the lake? Simply by creating more aeration and better water quality with the addition of the high-quality SWP water that the LEAPS project promises to bring to the lake.

According to Moore, who said that the lake would have dried up in 2015 without the recycled water, one potential benefit with a properly structured project is the additional water while waiting for recycled water to become available.

“That is potentially huge,” he said. “Additional water makes all the difference in the world. It helps dilute all the nutrients. It provides more habitat. The depth alone is tremendously valuable. It helps reduce salt in the lake which supports zooplankton which keeps the algae in check. Water solves a lot of the lake’s problems.”

Another benefit to the lake, should the deal be structured properly, is that the LEAPS project would help with aeration.

“You can engineer the system so that the water aerates on its way back down the hill,” Moore said. “Think of it as a waterfall. The water tumbles and falls down the hill and you can add air, draw air into the pipes and aerate the water so that the water coming back into Lake Elsinore after the round trip has a lot more air in it than the water that left Lake Elsinore.”

Moore said that aeration, which would help improve water quality and habitats, through the LEAPS project would be more effective than the current system.

“We spend almost a half a million dollars a year to operate that system and if we can get 10 times as much air into the lake by adding air during the water’s roundtrip that LEAPS is offering, it is at zero cost to the water agencies.”

“We would need to tell FERC to make these benefits part of the project so they would actually occur. So, we are not betting on someone’s word, these are actually permit conditions,” Moore said.

Purchasing water

Another question raised was where Nevada Hydro Hydro would purchase the water. With California being in a near constant state of drought at some level, many have voiced their opinion that the availability of water might be nothing more than a pipe dream.

According to Moore, while purchasing water to keep the lake at the recommended 1,240 level can be more expensive in times of drought, the actual process is easier than most would think.

“It depends on when they would need the water. In a year like this year, they have more water than what they know what to do with,” he said. “They have so much water and so much snow melt that they will exceed the entire system.”

Moore said there are years, like 2019, where reservoirs are full and the excess water just runs off into the ocean, but there are also years where water may not be as available. In those years water banks would be utilized.

“There are always people who have excess water they are willing to sell,” he said. “It’s possible. There are lots of places they can go to buy water. It’s mostly a matter of timing.”

Infrastructure is in place to move water from the Colorado River or the State Water Project into Lake Elsinore, Moore said.

“It’s an astounding system California has built, an amazing system, quite frankly,” he said. “You can actually get water from northern California all the way down to the lake.”

Cambrero said that while California is fortunate this year with the snowpack and heavy amounts of rain, there will still be conservation efforts in place.

“You need to bank the water when you have it for when you need it,” he said. “They try to save as much as they can when they can.”

Cambrero said with the rate of evaporation, the need to purchase water will be an ongoing issue for Nevada Hydro. He believes that is something which could cost EVMWD customers in the long run.

“It is going to be many times over that they will continue to buy water. There is a tremendous amount of water lost,” he said. “But this goes beyond just those 15,000 acre-feet of water that would get added. It goes back to supply and demand. Our rates could be affected.”

Since Nevada Hydro, under a legal settlement with EVMWD, is required to purchase the water for the project it remains unclear how ratepayers would be forced to pay more.

Ensuring city’s needs

So, what does Moore recommend the city do to ensure they get everything they want, or need, should the project move forward to create a healthy lake for all to enjoy?

“Get it all in writing,” Moore said, referring to the FERC licensing process.

Kim Harris can be reached by email at valleyeditor@reedermedia.com.