San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) is currently installing underground power lines off Cole Grade Road to mitigate fire risk in the community. But neighbors say the company is using pumps to extract their precious resource: water.
Since April, neighbors have documented meter readings and taken video of 12,000-gallon tanks, claiming SDG&E has been pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a day from four wells in a process called dewatering.
Lawrence Schmidt is a member of the Valley Center Planning Commission. He said, “We all understand that dewatering is necessary for projects and for the road widening, but in the middle of fire season, killing trees and removing all the water; it just seems like a very poorly planned operation.”
The company has used some of the water to help keep dust down from their project, but it’s unclear where the rest of the water is going.
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Kristen Bazata is an olive tree farmer who relies on a well that is supplied from the Keys Creek aquifer.
“This is taking our livelihood,” Bazata said.
Bazata and her neighbors -- who have been trying to stop the dewatering for months -- worry the company will take all of the groundwater, leaving their wells dry and put them at greater risk if there’s a wildfire.
“Right now, we can’t even water our tress because taking a shower is more important than making sure my trees get water,” Bazata said.
In the advice letter approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, before work began, SDG&E wrote in part: “…this project will not create any significant direct, indirect or cumulative effects.”
On June 18, San Diego County Public Works issued a stop work order because SDG&E’s excavation permit did not include dewatering operations.
But there’s a loophole, SDG&E can still pump water as long as it’s “necessary to control erosion and protect the property.”
"The stop work order SDG&E received from the County states that all work under the excavation permit, issued by the County of San Diego must stop, “except that which is necessary to control erosion and protect the property.” The dewatering is necessary to ensure site safety and is therefore consistent with the stop work order. SDG&E continues to communicate with the County about the dewatering and the plan to demobilize the dewatering safely by June 30."
-Brittany Syz, Director of Environmental Services and Sustainability.
SDG&E confirmed it shut down two monitoring wells, but two bore pits are still pumping 45,000 gallons per day. The company has not provided NBC 7 with an accurate reading from all four pumping since they began dewatering.
"We stopped pumping water out of the two monitoring wells on June 22, and the monitoring wells have recharged to pre-construction water levels. At the start of the project, we anticipated between 6900-13,000 gallons per day. The levels began to increase in early May; as of today, June 25, 2021 we are pumping 45,000 gallons per day from the two bore pits, based on our flowmeter readings. SDG&E’s current dewatering efforts are consistent with the project approval issued by the California Public Utilities Commission and all applicable water discharge requirements."
“I feel like they’re just trying to capitalize on this timeline and they are in the process of shutting things down, but I think they’re kind of trying to milk every drop and get every drop out of the ground until they’re really forced to do so and end construction all together,” Schmidt said.
Neighbors are now trying to get the water put back underground but that requires more permits and testing to make sure there’s no contamination.
There’s a "Save VC Water" protest scheduled Saturday at 10 a.m. near the construction site at Cool Valley Road and Cole Grade Road.
"SDG&E understands and appreciates the community’s concerns about the unexpected conditions our project encountered as we were working to relocate our transmission line underground. We are working diligently to complete further analysis in order to provide additional information to the community. SDG&E’s current dewatering efforts, which are consistent with the project approval issued by the California Public Utilities Commission and all applicable water discharge requirements, are nearing completion. As we safely demobilize operations, the two monitoring wells at the construction site have recharged to pre-construction water levels. Safety continues to be our highest priority, with a steadfast commitment to preserving the environment in which we work," Syz said.
SDG&E anticipates dewatering activities to stop by Wednesday, June 30. The entire project is expected to be complete by November 15, 2022.