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“Renewable” Hydro Boom Threatens California’s Wild Places

By Steve Evans

UPDATE 5/29/19: Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) rejected Premium Energy’s preliminary study permit application for the Owens Valley Pumped Storage project because it was “patently deficient.” FERC denied the application because the proposal as described was in reality three projects requiring separate applications under FERC rules. We expect Premium Energy to resubmit one or more applications for this project in the near future. Stay tuned…


A public outcry prompted a private energy company to drop proposed dams and reservoirs in the John Muir Wilderness from one of two applications to study proposed pumped storage hydroelectric projects in the eastern Sierra Nevada. Premium Energy Holdings LLC, based in Walnut, CA, has applied for preliminary permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to study two projects east of the Sierra Nevada – the Owens Valley and Haiwee projects.

As originally proposed, the Owens Valley Pumped Storage Project included proposed reservoirs on Wheeler Ridge in the John Muir Wilderness and on lower Rock Creek, a stream the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) identified as eligible for wild and scenic river protection due to its outstanding scenic and recreation values. Outrage from the general public, local property owners, and conservation groups and activists apparently prompted the company to amend the preliminary permit relocating the upper reservoirs in the White Mountains to the east and its lower reservoirs on the Owens River Gorge. However, conservationists still have serious concerns with the project even though it is no longer proposing dams and reservoirs in protected wilderness or along eligible wild and scenic rivers.

Pumped storage projects store water in a lower reservoir, pump water to an upper reservoir when electricity is cheap and plentiful, and then drop it back down to the lower reservoir through a penstock and powerhouse to generate electricity during high demand periods or when renewable solar and wind energy is not available. Although pumped storage is not a new concept, these projects claim to use renewable solar or wind power to pump the water uphill and then generate electricity when renewable power is not available, thereby acting as a “battery” to store renewable energy.

Premium Energy’s second project in the eastern Sierra is the Haiwee project, located just south of Owens Lake and the small town of Olancha on Highway 395. This project includes at least one dam and reservoir in the BLM’s existing Coso Range Wilderness, which was protected by Congress in 1994. Developed facilities like dams and reservoirs are generally prohibited under the Wilderness Act, but there is provision in the law allowing the President to approve dams/reservoirs in wilderness areas.

With its self-professed “keen interest in harnessing and increasing renewable energy production in California,” Premium Energy’s applications to FERC are for project studies only and are not yet applications for project construction licenses. But to conduct studies under the preliminary permits, Premium Energy proposes to construct “temporary” access roads into the protected wilderness areas, roadless areas, and across other sensitive public lands to proposed facility sites. In addition, the preliminary study permits will allow surface-disturbing soil and rock borings, and seismic surveys on public lands.

In lieu of building dams in the John Muir Wilderness, the amended preliminary permit application for the Owens Valley project now proposes three large dams and reservoirs in the White Mountains roadless area on the Inyo National Forest east of Bishop, CA. The information and maps in the application lack details, but two of the dams and reservoirs would be located on tributaries of Silver Creek. A third dam and reservoir appears to be located on a tributary of Gunter Creek.

All three dams/reservoirs would likely conflict with protection provided by the Forest Service’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which prohibits road construction or reconstruction in the roadless lands surrounding Silver and Gunter Creeks. In addition, the proposed facilities may not comply with management direction in the final Inyo Forest Plan Revision. The public lands where the dams and reservoirs are proposed are allocated to primitive and semi-primitive motorized management intended to provide a challenging backroad recreation experience with medium to high scenic integrity. This may be the first test of whether the Forest Service’s new forest plans, with its vague management direction, can protect sensitive public lands from unwanted development.

The Owens project would shunt water westward from the White Mountain reservoirs through long tunnels under the Volcanic Tablelands Wilderness Study Area to three lower reservoirs proposed in the Owens River Gorge downstream of Lake Crowley. These lower dams and reservoirs would be constructed on land owned by the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power (LADWP) and would likely conflict with the legally-mandated restoration of flows in the gorge to improve trout and riparian habitat. There is also concern that tunneling under the Volcanic Tablelands could result in groundwater diversions that feed the extremely sensitive Fish Slough wetlands.

In addition to considering two alternative upper reservoir sites in the Coso Range Wilderness, the Haiwee project is also examining a third alternative upper reservoir site to the west near Sage Flat on the Inyo National Forest. That reservoir site abuts the existing South Sierra Wilderness and a 17,000-acre addition to the wilderness recently recommended by the Forest Service in the final Inyo Forest Plan Revision. The upper reservoirs would be connected by tunnels/penstocks to a lower reservoir sited just upstream of LADWP’s existing North Haiwee Reservoir. All alternatives for the Haiwee project involve construction of roads, transmission lines, tunnels, penstocks, pumping plants, and power houses on public lands managed by the BLM as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, which were established to protect the area’s rich cultural and ecological resources.

The facilities proposed for these projects are not small. The Owens project’s six reservoirs would require the construction of dams ranging in height from 375 to 655 feet and in length from 1,290 to 2,570 feet. Astoundingly, the 655 foot-high dam to create White Mountain Reservoir 1 would be the fifth-tallest dam in the United States. The water storage capacity of the project reservoirs range from 12,660 to 23,530 acre feet. The project would require three 19-22 mile-long tunnels ranging from 22-28 feet in diameter. The Owens project would theoretically produce approximately 16,580 gigawatt hours (GWh) annually of electricity. The project would also require tying into existing transmission lines or building an entirely new transmission line from the north end of the Owens Valley all the way to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.

Unless it too is amended to remove the conflict with the Coso Range Wilderness, the Haiwee project calls for dams ranging in height from 130-275 feet and in length from 1,435-7,090 feet. The water storage capacity of these reservoirs range from 20,090 to 39,697 acre feet. Proposed tunnels and penstocks connecting the upper and lower reservoirs would be 28-40 feet in diameter and up to 6.5 miles in length. The Haiwee project would produce 6,900 GWh annually of electricity.

A preliminary permit granted by FERC gives the applicant a secure right to conduct studies and hold the site as a priority for 24 months pending application for a hydroelectric license. Preliminary permit activities include conceptual engineering and evaluation of alternative reservoir configurations, geotechnical and hydrological studies, soil and topographical surveying, environmental and cultural impact studies, planning and evaluation of transmission line alternatives, investigation into legal and water rights matters, energy market evaluation, development of a preliminary licensing proposal, and preparation of a license application to FERC. As noted previously, some of these preliminary permit activities would require the construction of temporary roads and soil and rock sample drilling in protected areas and across other public and perhaps private lands. Of particular concern to private property owners, a hydroelectric license for either project would grant Premium Energy the power of eminent domain to condemn private property needed for the project.

Conservationists are concerned that these projects signal the potential start of a hydroelectric development rush like the “small hydro” boom that threatened public lands in the 1980s. A Federal Power Act amendment encouraging the development of so-called “small hydroelectric” projects led to the application and issuance of dozens of preliminary study permits for projects proposed in California’s wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, and wild trout streams nearly four decades ago. Although very few of these projects were ultimately constructed, an enormous amount of time and resources were invested by conservation activists and federal land managers to oppose inappropriate hydro development on sensitive public lands in response to the boom.

Most of the small hydro boom’s preliminary permit applications turned out to be little more than speculative “site banking” by the applicants, without an real intent to conduct studies or ultimately build a project. Despite FERC’s existing policy to avoid site banking by speculators, the agency is considering granting preliminary study permit extensions for 61 projects throughout the U.S.

Given California’s strong renewable energy standard, it makes sense to figure out a way to “store” renewable energy for when the sun is not shining or when winds are calm. But it has to be done in a manner that is truly renewable and avoid harm to important natural resources, such as our state’s diverse wild places. Since California already has 1,400 dams and reservoirs, it seems reasonable to consider proposed pumped storage hydroelectric projects using existing facilities. But even those projects should be designed to avoid reducing river flows, changes in water temperature, loss of public land for facilities construction and tunnel waste disposal, and other undesirable impacts.

In response to the perceived need to develop projects that store renewable energy driven by the state’s strong renewable energy standard, State Senator Steven Bradford (D-Compton) introduced SB 772, which encourages pumped storage hydroelectric development in the name of renewable energy. The bill will soon be voted on by the California Senate. An initial review indicates that this bill would apply to the eastern Sierra projects proposed by Premium Energy. This is the kind of political pressure, replete with unintended consequences, that could contribute to creating a new hydro boom threatened public lands.

Currently in California, there is an active preliminary permit to study a pumped storage project using existing reservoirs on the Mokelumne and Bear Rivers in Amador County. Local conservationists are concerned that the Mokelumne-Bear project could adversely impact hard won restoration flows in the Mokelumne, cause potentially harmful changes in water temperature, and require raising the Lower Bear River dam, which would inundate a popular recreation area. There are two other active preliminary permits for pumped storage projects in California, one involving the San Vincente Reservoir in San Diego County and the other is for the Bison Peak pumped storage project in the Tehachapi Mountains, which would involve entirely newly constructed facilities tapping into local groundwater or the LA Aqueduct. FERC has issued a license for the proposed Eagle Mountain Pumped Storage Project adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. That project proposes to use groundwater as its water source and a former mine site for its reservoirs.

FERC is still reviewing the preliminary permit applications for the Owens Valley and Haiwee projects. An ad hoc coalition of local, statewide, and national groups (including CalWild, Friends of the Inyo, and Sierra Club) and activists has formed in opposition to the projects. As previously noted, Premium Energy has already filed an amendment to the Owens project removing its proposed reservoirs from the John Muir Wilderness and Rock Creek. Whether the company intends to amend its Haiwee project to eliminate conflict with the Coso Range Wilderness, as it did with the Owens project, remains to be seen.

There will be an opportunity for public input once FERC processes the Owens Valley and Haiwee project applications. Stay tuned for an alert from CalWild on this subject. For more information, contact Steve Evans, CalWild Rivers Director, email:, phone: (916) 708-3155.