Bly Tunnel discussion dominates board meeting
Jennifer Mata, an ecologist with the Bureau of Land Management, made a slide presentation that outlined the history of the tunnel.
Following that, BLM field manager, Dayne Barron, opened the meeting to public comment. “All I can do is provide you with the best understanding of the documentation that we have at hand. But, we’ll try our best to answer questions.”
The issue of spring seepage into the tunnel quickly dominated the discussion. The question at hand was whether or not the water flowing through the pipe in the tunnel’s plug was spring water or Eagle Lake water.
Dr. Owen Bateson came forward with the results of water tests conducted by Lassen College chemist, Dr. Dan Anderson. “It really boils down to one fact,” said Bateson, explaining the generally acknowledged fact that the alkalinity of lake water was significantly higher than spring water.
Using what is called a litmus or pH test, Dr. Bateson indicated that Spring Creek water tested with a pH of 7.2 to 7.3. Eagle Lake water, taken from the inlet bay “just outside” the Bly Tunnel intake, tested at a pH of 8.9. Thus, their differing pH levels readily identify lake water and spring water.
Bateson declared the water exiting the pipe in the tunnel plug tested at a pH of 8.4, confirming “that is not spring water. That water is almost identical to Eagle Lake water,” he said.
“If there was spring water feeding the water coming out of the Bly Tunnel, then that spring water would have a pH somewhere near (that of) the spring water that’s coming out of the headwaters of Willow Creek and the other springs that feed Willow Creek.”
Bateson went on to summarize, “Water coming out of that pipe, gentlemen and ladies, is not from a spring. That is Eagle Lake water.”
Citing a decision made by the State Water Resources in 1962 that “it would best conserve the public interest to reject and deny all of subject applications” to Eagle Lake water, Bateson asked, “How can this water be adjudicated to the Murrer Ranch when it is Eagle Lake water?”
Addressing the board, Bateson said, “You need to do something about it now. We’re losing way too much water.”
Lastly, Bateson said his calculations indicate that over five feet of water depth has been lost from the lake over the years through the Bly Tunnel pipe.
“I would love to have five more feet of water in that lake right now. And, I think everybody else would, too,” he said, drawing applause from the audience.
Rudy Whitmer, a part-time Spalding resident, retired educator and avid fisherman who has made it his personal quest to investigate the Bly Tunnel issue, then came forward, opening his presentation by saying, “Let’s turn off the water valve this week. And then if you want to study it to death, go ahead … Let’s see what happens.”
Once again, the gallery erupted in applause.
“The problem is that this lake is dropping one quarter of an inch per day,” said Whitmer, who also pointed out that the lake level now stands at 5097 feet and added that a California Fish and Game department document indicated at the 5099-foot level, “the fisheries start to suffer tremendously.”
Whitmer said that the State Water Rights Board decision of 1962 indicated “all Eagle Lake water is required to remain in Eagle Lake for recreational, stock watering, and related uses, which beneficial uses are both pursuant to existing right and in the public interest; … and that it would best conserve the public interest to reject and deny all of subject applications.”
Bob Pyle, a Lassen County supervisor, injected a comment. “You’re getting into a lot of legal issues,” he said. “Evidently, they had a good reason to put a pipe in there” suggesting that it was to honor rights to tunnel water.
Bob Whitaker, a resident of Eagle Lake Estates then said, “It seems to me that someone has to volunteer to work out this apparent discrepancy … In any event, these dilemmas need to be solved. Whose responsibility is it to solve them?”
“That’s why we have an Eagle Lake board. A lot of these considerations go beyond the sole consideration of the BLM,” said Barron, in reply. “Before I would make any decision to totally shut down that pipe, I would have to have a solicitor opinion that there are no water rights.
“At the time we did the documentation to close the tunnel, the BLM was under the impression, based on the best knowledge they had at the time, that there was a water right to 10 cfs (cubic feet per second),” Barron said. “That’s why that eight inch pipe was put in, to accommodate that water right.”
Whitmer replied that BLM documents speak of “spring water,” not lake water.
Pyle again asked, “If the water right was only (for) spring water, why would they put the pipe in?”
Speaking to the public’s concerns, Barron said, “I can’t sit here today and tell you that it’s all spring water (or) that it’s all lake water. What I can tell you, what our documents tell us, the environmental analysis that was done at the time says that there is spring water that leaks into that tunnel and there is lake water that seeps through pyroclastic flows and fault lines. There’s a combination of both.”
At that point, a water user in Willow Creek, Daren Hagata, spoke up. “We’ve been the biggest losers,” he said of his fellow ranchers, noting that due to drought conditions, water flows into the Willow Creek Valley have dwindled to seven cfs, when they were originally set at 36 cfs. “Every spring in that valley fluctuates with the level of the lake — the higher the lake is, the more the water flows. … All of that water up there is connected volcanically to that lake.”
Hagata also revealed the tunnel was first plugged with sand “by the ranchers because we didn’t want the alkaline water … Believe me, we don’t want that dirty water on our fields.”
Further, Hagata pointed to the residents around the lake as major contributors to the declining lake level. “I think there’s a tremendous impact on the lake water from all the wells.”
Supervisor Pyle summed up, saying, “This board has no authority to shut that valve off. … And (even) if we did, I wouldn’t do it without a lot more information. You’d have one big legal court battle. This man (Hagata) has established water rights, sounds to me like. We’d have to determine there aren’t real water rights. And that would have to be done in a court of law.”
Barron then acknowledged that BLM has jurisdiction of the tunnel, but he would not act precipitously. “I would need my solicitors to tell me that it was okay to shut that off before I would. The best information that I have available to me is the documentation we did in preparation for closing the tunnel. It says there is a water right that we have to accommodate, and that’s why we put the pipe in it.
“I don’t want to see Eagle Lake water go down any more than anybody does. And I hope that nobody thinks that. But, we’re in a position where I’m not going to touch that valve until I have a solicitor opinion that says that it’s okay.”
Barron then went on to make a commitment. Noting that this issue may not be a high priority when seen in light of the attorneys’ caseload, he said, “Based on the concern that we have locally, I will make a request of our solicitor’s office to give me an opinion. That will be something we can go on.
“I’ll talk to my boss, and we’ll see if we can get some answers, based on the information we have and maybe a few things you can give us. As you know, water law is very complex.”
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