The Water Bond hasn’t even passed yet and additional water storage is already in the works for Tulare County. A 4,000-acre-foot reservoir is being planned south of Woodlake and next to Lemon Cove where the St. Johns River and the Kaweah River split at a location known as McKay’s Point. An Indian village used to be located there, and later, from the 1930s to the 1960s, it was a recreational spot for swimming during the day and dancing under the stars at night. Currently the site is inaccessible to the public.
Locals whose wells are going dry due to the gravel mines look at the project with trepidation. McKay’s Point Reservoir is intrinsically linked to the Stilwell gravel mine and the two Lemon Cove Projects because the reservoir will be dug in their aquifer and is starting life out as a gravel mine. Not only will it be a gravel mine–but CEMEX will be doing the mining. CEMEX has not been a good neighbor to local landowners and, in a recently released peer review by Tully and Young, CEMEX was found to be possibly at fault for many of Lemon Cove residents’ wells going dry.
So how do we know CEMEX will follow the provisions in their conditional use permit and their contract with the owners of the property?
The crucial difference between the Lemon Cove gravel mines and McKay’s Point Reservoir is that CEMEX is not running the show, the property owners are. McKay’s Point is owned by three veterans in the water industry: Tulare Irrigation District (TID), Consolidated Peoples Ditch Company (CPDC) and Visalia and Kaweah Water Company. All three have owned water rights in the Kaweah River basin since the 1800s. It took CEMEX and the ditch and irrigation companies three years to pound out all the legalities and put them in writing in the contract.
Conversely, the owners of the land underneath the Stillwell Project and Lemon Cove Project leased their property to CEMEX, and then washed their hands of the matter. Why the property owners, along with CEMEX, were not both liable for the residents’ wells going dry is unclear.
The McKay’s Point project will not be just any reservoir, and there may not be one like it anywhere else in the country. The project has many hurdles, and probably will not come up for a vote by the supervisors until next year. But if the Tulare County Board of Supervisors approves construction, McKay’s Point will start as a gravel mine and then convert to a reservoir 10 to 20 years later. CEMEX will process the gravel at their processing plant located in the Lemon Cove Project and then sell it. The owners of the property will receive a royalty that will pay for the construction of the reservoir. CEMEX will provide the services of an excavation contractor, digging out the material to create the reservoir, and the owners will construct the appurtenant facilities to allow for water flows in and out of it. All in all, the project is projected to cost about $12 million.
“We know water and they know mining,” said James Silva, water master for CPDC. Silva said that the property owners went slowly because they didn’t know anything about mining. They sought the input of a retired mine operation manager in the area to ensure that they understood the positions and operational capabilities of the mining industry when negotiating the contract.
CEMEX won’t necessarily be mining McKay’s Point for 20 years. The agreement with CEMEX lasts for 10 years with options for extension, up to a maximum of another 10 years. If sufficient excavation has not been achieved after 15 years, the property owners may terminate the agreement. Inflationary costs are accounted for, and CEMEX must pay more in royalties as time goes by, providing an incentive to complete the excavation services in a timely fashion.
Locals fear that during the ten to 20 years that CEMEX is mining, the company will sell the water and their wells will go dry. But in this project, the fox is not guarding the hen house. CEMEX will not be in charge of the trenches, as they remain the responsibility of the property owners. Silva said that the trenches and pumps will be well taken care of, fenced off, and running regularly.
The owners’ goal is to have an empty pit ready to receive water in the event of a flood or when Terminus Dam needs to do a flood release. The water can then be stored until needed by the irrigation districts. Aaron Fukuda, head engineer for TID, also said that any extra water will not be sold “and, in one way or another, will be disposed of in a fashion where essentially all of it enters back into the underlying aquifer.”
Richard Garcia, water committee chair from the local branch of the Sierra Club, hopes that some of the stored water can be released in the natural waterways such as Elk Bayou, Mill Creek, Cross Creek and Deep Creek. Suggestions such as Garcia’s will be invited during the public comment period after the completion of the EIR. The EIR is being completed by Provost and Pritchard Consulting Group and should be done by October for internal review, then later this year for public review.
McKay’s Point Reservoir will serve two main purposes. The first and foremost is to provide storage and flood control. Tulare County’s flood events are short in duration, with most of the surplus water flowing downstream out of the Kaweah basin.
McKay’s point reservoir can capture the floodwater from a diversion point on the Kaweah River of up to 500 cubic feet per second. The reservoir could go from empty to full in four days and could repeat the process multiple times in one year. The water will be held until it can be safely released into the St. Johns or Kaweah River, or when farmers most need water in late summer.
Diverting the water during a downpour will also help prevent the creeks from flooding in Visalia. The reservoir will store Kaweah River water belonging to the owners in accordance with their long-held water rights.
The second purpose is to optimize the use of the hydroelectric power plant at Terminus Dam. TID owns 25% of the hydroelectric plant and has a vested interest in keeping the plant running all year if possible. Additional storage downstream will enable better control of releasing water from Terminus Dam and will extend the amount of time the hydroelectric power plant can run.
Because the reservoir will be dug out of a gravely, sandy area with a high water table, seepage will be unavoidable. Fukuda is predicting 500 gallons per minute to seep into the pit. The water that seeps into the pit will be pumped over the wall to the trenches. Most of the seepage will come from the bottom up because cutoff walls will be constructed while the pit is mined by CEMEX.
“Based upon initial borings we are anticipating a design that would have a wall depth of 45 feet to 90 feet,” said Fukuda. “The wall will start at about 10 to 15 feet below grade level, as it does not need to exist at heights above standing groundwater.” The walls will be built using the latest engineering technology and be injected with slurry, a thick fluid that will harden inside the walls of the reservoir making them almost impervious.
TID, CPDC and Visalia and Kaweah Water Company have an obvious vested interest in building a high quality structure that is an asset to the community. Almost all farmers are going to be in favor of increased water storage, but this project is going to get resistance from the residents whose wells might be affected “by putting a brick in the middle of the aquifer” as one farmer described it. He added, “When you disturb the underground aquifer it most likely is going to be adversely.”
Part two of the McKay Point Reservoir will review some of the concerns expressed by locals and environmentalists.