Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Plan aims to deliver water, protect fish

After years of court losses, district eyes a more environmen­tally friendly project

- By Steve Scauzillo sscauzillo@scng.com

The San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District has decided to join them, not fight them.

Stymied by environmen­tal barriers and losses in court for 11 years, the large water wholesaler serving 700,000 residentia­l and business customers from Fontana to Yucaipa is on the precipice of releasing an environmen­tally based plan that would nearly double its supply of water by diverting billions of gallons from the Upper Santa Ana River while mitigating the effects on 20 indigenous fish and bird species.

Water managers in both San Bernardino and Riverside counties describe this twosided effort as balanced, ecological­ly friendly and massive in scope but also necessary to keep up with the water demands of a growing Inland Empire.

“It is a groundbrea­king plan,” said Heather Dyer, San Bernardino Valley water district CEO and general manager. “No one is doing something this big.”

The 50-year Upper Santa Ana River Habitat Conservati­on Plan covers 850,000 acres of the river and riparian habitat in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. If approved, it could allow for about 85 new water-capture projects that would add 87,000 acre-feet of water on average to the supplies of 12 cooperatin­g agencies. That’s equal to water used by about 175,000 households per year, or more than 500,000 people.

But for every gallon of water taken from the river for human use, there would be less for the fish, amphibians and birds that live there. That’s why the plan emphasizes creating new ways for these animals not only to survive, but thrive, Dyer said.

“It’s an amazing way of interlinki­ng environmen­tal benefits with engineerin­g projects,” she said. “There will have to be en- gineering solutions if you want to have native species remain in the river.”

Dyer, a biologist hired by the district about five years ago, was once considered “the enemy,” according to people who follow the issue, because she worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that in 2009 blocked the San Bernardino Valley district and the Western Municipal Water District in Riverside from moving forward on proposed projects because they failed to show how they would protect the endangered Santa Ana sucker fish and other threatened river species.

The “fish over people” mantra no longer applies, Dyer said, adding she believes the conservati­on plan can deliver benefits for both.

“We are working together to get all the necessary permits to build water supply projects over the next 50 years,” she said, referring to the consortium of agencies partnered on the conservati­on plan, which includes the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, Metropolit­an Water District of Southern California, Riverside Public Utilities, San Bernardino Valley Water Conservati­on District, Southern California Edison and others.

The plan, the projects

The conservati­on plan has been eight years in developmen­t and is ready for release to the general public in March, Dyer said. After a comment period, a final draft would be created that must be approved by the USFWS.

The question remains: Will it be acceptable to the agency and to environmen­tal groups who have sued to stop projects in the past.

“I do think it [the conservati­on plan] is an improvemen­t over the status quo,” said Ileene Anderson, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that has sued on varying occasions to stop water agencies from building projects that would imperil the Santa Ana sucker fish. “One would hope it would improve the functionin­g of that river system.”

A major emphasis of the conservati­on plan includes caring for the Santa Ana sucker fish, listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, as well as other threatened and unlisted species. A recent survey found about 6,000 of the algae-eating fish clustered in a 3-mile upriver section. The fish are also found in the San Gabriel River and a tributary to the Los Angeles River.

So-called mitigation projects would satisfy environmen­tal regulation­s, smoothing the way for more storm-water diversion into side basins, pooling water for percolatio­n into the San Bernardino aquifer. It also allows for more recycling of wastewater to be recharged into the aquifer for storage, which is later piped up for use by retail water districts, water companies and city water department­s, Dyer said.

The San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District imports about 100,000 acre-feet of water from the State Water Project, a pipeline that delivers water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in Northern California.

The state water source is heavily reliant upon melting snowpack from the Sierra Nevada. The amount of snowpack was about 68% of average for this time of year, while major state reservoirs are around 69% to 71% of their historical averages for Feb. 17, according to the state Department of Water Resources. But most of the state’s urban counties are in a two-year drought.

Water managers are concerned about irregulari­ty in snowfall because of global climate change, which could reduce snowpack in future years and result in less imported water for Southern California agencies to buy.

“With climate change, it creates so much uncertaint­y,” Dyer said. “That’s why we are focused on having a diverse supply. If we don’t have enough State Water Project water, we can shift to the [local] ground water basin.”

One of the partners in the conservati­on plan, the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, is hoping the plan will allow the building of a project to divert water from the Santa Ana River and inject it into the ground. Because water from storms or mountain snow melt “comes in gulps,” it can be difficult to capture and often gets wasted, said Sylvie Lee, manager of strategic planning for the agency.

“So in drier years, we will have that water stored in the aquifer, and you can use it during the drought years,” Lee said.

Erecting rubber dams

Proposed projects in the plan include:

• Erecting rubber dams that can be inflated during the rainy season to pool water in the river and deflated during the dry months to allow water to pass through to support the sucker fish, explained Joanna Gibson, wildlife biologist with San Bernardino Valley district. A rubber dam is proposed for the river in southern Colton.

• Groundwate­r recharge projects at tributarie­s to the river, including at Plunge Creek near Highland. Riverside Public Utility plans recharge projects at Columbia Basin at the corner of Marlboroug­h and Chicago avenues, west of Northgate Street in Highgrove, and at Spring Brook Channel between West La Cadena Drive and Orange Street. San Bernardino Valley district proposes enhancing water recharge just below Seven Oaks Dam located near Highland and near Devil Canyon behind Cal State San

Bernardino.

Capital costs for all stormwater capture and recycled water projects in the conservati­on plan total about $650 million over 50 years, Dyer said.

“But we would be saving $945 million by capturing more water because we wouldn’t have to buy imported water,” she said.

To get to the project phase, the 12 agencies involved in the conservati­on plan have identified several ways to protect and even grow the Santa Ana sucker population through restoring habitat and even breeding the little fish in concrete river “raceways,” then relocating them into the wild river.

A key way is to clean out tributarie­s of trash and debris, widening them, then adding a permanent water source from recycled water plants, said Gibson, the wildlife biologist. These include Anza Creek, about 2 miles downstream from Mount Rubidoux, and Hidden Valley Creek, less than a mile from the Van Buren Boulevard Bridge in Riverside, among others.

Once restored, biologists can begin the tricky task of translocat­ing sucker fish to new homes in river creeks. Now, the threatened species congregate in one stretch of the Santa Ana River, making them susceptibl­e to a tanker crash leaking toxic chemicals or some other event, such as a fire, that could wipe out the species, Gibson said.

“This way, we don’t have all the eggs in one basket,” she said.

On a recent weekday, San Bernardino Valley district biologists Chris Jones and Kai Palenscar waded into Sunnyslope Creek in Jurupa Valley where the 46 fire in October 2019 charred brush and burned down a nature center. The creek contained plastic bags and fast-food containers washed in from street storm drains.

“We are trying to make the stream more suitable for the native fish species to live, like the Santa Ana sucker and other species covered by the HCP, like the arroyo chub,” a native, chunky fish listed as “vulnerable,” Jones said.

The biologists also do bird surveys. The least bell’s vireo, listed as endangered, and the California gnatcatche­r, a threatened species that is small and likes to eat insects, are present along the river banks.

The plan calls for restoring 221 acres of riparian habitat for the vireo, an olive-gray songbird, and 222 acres of alluvial fan sage scrub for the gnatcatche­r and the San Bernardino Merriam’s kangaroo rat, an endangered species.

Taking out palm trees and arundo — giant reeds that suck up water and choke out native plants — is part of the plan for coaxing the vireo to stick around, even nest, Gibson said.

For the gnatcatche­r and the kangaroo rat, thick, invasive grasses must be removed by hand.

“Grasses have been there for decades,” Gibson said. “It is very, very challengin­g for anybody embarking on that kind of habitat restoratio­n.”

Innovative techniques include using sheep and goats, she said.

The kangaroo rat, which hops on two feet, can’t move through the thick grasses, preventing it from getting food or finding a mate, she said.

Mitigation plans for all 20 species will cost about $200 million, Dyer said. But the projects can’t move forward without those efforts.

“I believe the species of the Santa Ana River are better with, than without, us,” Dyer said.

 ?? WATCHARA PHOMICINDA — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? Biologists Kai Palenscar, right, and Chris Jones of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District survey Sunnyslope Creek at the Louis Robidoux Nature Center in Jurupa Valley on Feb. 18. The water district has a new conservati­on plan for the Upper Santa Ana River.
WATCHARA PHOMICINDA — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER Biologists Kai Palenscar, right, and Chris Jones of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District survey Sunnyslope Creek at the Louis Robidoux Nature Center in Jurupa Valley on Feb. 18. The water district has a new conservati­on plan for the Upper Santa Ana River.
 ??  ?? Palenscar, left, and Jones wade through shallow water as they survey the Sunnyslope Creek at the Louis Robidoux Nature Center. Jones says the water district is trying to make the water more suitable for native fish species, such as the Santa Ana sucker fish.
Palenscar, left, and Jones wade through shallow water as they survey the Sunnyslope Creek at the Louis Robidoux Nature Center. Jones says the water district is trying to make the water more suitable for native fish species, such as the Santa Ana sucker fish.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA