By Reggie Ellis
Balancing industrial and agricultural resources is never easy, especially when you are talking about aggregate deposits and the rivers and streams that run past them.
In order to keep construction affordable future aggregate will have to be secured, as long as it does not damage the waterways that irrigate some of the most productive ag land in the world. But how can both ends be met?
It appears Kaweah River Rock (KRR) may finally have an answer.
After failing to obtain a permit to mine 775 acres of the 815-acre Hannah Ranch property near Woodlake in 1999, KRR knew that something more progressive had to be done. Several years ago KRR General Manager Dave Harrald got together with the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District (KDWCD) to devise a proposal that would not only protect water resources but benefit them as well.
KDWCD was formed under the Water Conservation Act of 1927. The law gives districts the authority "to appropriate, acquire, protect and conserve water and water rights for any useful purpose; to protect land or property from floods; to store and distribute surface waters to district lands; to replenish underground water …"
"We listened to what the decision makers said and went back to the drawing board to meet their concerns," Harrald said.
General Manager Bruce George said KDWCD was neutral during KRR's last permit which did not do enough to protect water flows and evaporative losses. But now, in the midst of a new permit for a much different proposal, KDWCD has become a supporter upholding the data and mitigation measures outlined in the project.
"This project is a model for mining in the aquifer," George said. "We enthusiastically support the project because it is the first that has addressed water issues up front and actually turns the project into a water positive."
The new proposal, known as the Kaweah South Project, is located between the Kaweah and St. Johns rivers, one mile east of the Woodlake Highway. The new project is smaller, mining 240 acres compared to 815 acres; shallower, the depth of excavation will be 45 to 55 feet rather than the 85 feet; sounder, measures have been taken to mitigate water loss from the water onto the site and pumping water back into the river; and smarter, the reclamation plan will create a water storage and recharge facility in overflow years.
"We neither support nor oppose mining," George said. "We are not worried about the economics or politics of the situation. We are only thinking about the water."
Despite the endorsement from water experts like the water conservation district, opponents of the last proposal are again criticizing the mining company.
John Pehrson, who is a member of the Kaweah-St. John's Farmers League, spoke to a group of farmers of the Lindsay Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) meeting last week. Pehrson said he did not understand why there has not been more of an emphasis on hard rock mining.
"There's lots of rock above ground," he said at the meeting, "and it's okay to mine above ground. I doubt they will enact a no mining law in California."
Harrald argues that the quality of aggregate needed for highway construction is often found near waterways because the stones are weathered and more durable.
Pehrson also said mining on an ag preserve would contradict the intent of the Williamson Act.
"Is this reflecting the purpose of the Williamson Act?" he asked rhetorically at the meeting.
The Williamson Act is a California state law that allows local governments to enter into contacts with private landowners to restrict specific parcels of land to agricultural, open space, or compatible uses in exchange for lower property taxes based on ag use value rather than market value. The entire 280-acre project is currently within the boundaries of Agricultural Preserve No. 622, signed by the landowner in 1970 and is automatically renewed unless action is taken. The current 10-year contract will not terminate until Jan. 14, 2010.
While under Williamson Act jurisdiction, the land use of the Hannah Ranch property must not: 1) compromise the long-term productive agricultural capability; nor 2) displace or impair the current or foreseeable agricultural operations. Currently 207 acres of the project area are planted for cotton and 73 acres are fallow.
However, Williamson Act regulations also state that mining projects that are unable to meet the aforementioned uses may be approved if the land can be reclaimed to conditions similar to its initial state. Also, under the property's zoning mining is an acceptable land use. The Williamson Act contract for the project area specifies that "All of the uses … which are allowed in the AE Zone are also determined to be compatible uses in the Preserve."
Del Strange, representing a group called Valley Citizens for Water, is worried that the project could affect water flow and water levels of neighboring wells.
The mining operation will demand between 20,000 to 100,000 gallons of water per day, depending on the time of year. Water use will be the highest in the summer and lowest in the winter. It is estimated that the project will use 497 acre-feet of water per year, 175 acre-feet less than if it were used to irrigate all 280 acres for cotton rows. Evaporative losses are a non-factor as the basin will capture and recharge 1,800 acre-feet annually, a net gain of 700 acre-feet after evaporation.
At a public hearing on the DEIR Strange told the Tulare County Planning Commissioners that the project would destroy a significant portion of the Kaweah aquifer by leaving a dry pit where groundwater once existed.
The DEIR cites both water levels and water groundwater resources as potential impacts of the project but does offer ways to mitigate both. To prevent water flows changes, the project proposes a clay curtain and drain line to return water to the river. The clay curtain, called a cutoff wall, will be constructed around the perimeter of the excavation site. The below surface wall is 3 feet wide and will extend 35 feet to 45 feet deep, about 2 feet into the harder, much older rock. The wall will restrict groundwater from flowing into the dry mining pit. Any water that does flow into the pit would be returned to the river downstream through the drain line.
Some opponents have described the wall as "experimental" but Harrald, who has been in the construction and aggregate industry for 40 years this month, said it is a proven technique. Harrald has personally overseen projects in Iowa and Wyoming that used the cutoff wall. In California, a similar wall is being used by Mission Valley Rock Company in Sunol, Alameda County.
"Water blockage is not an issue," George said.
George said the DEIR does a good job of identifying potential problems and implementing ideas to eliminate or drastically reduce those problems.
"This project came to the table with these issues to begin with," George said. "We didn't have to waste time and public money to bring them up and debate them."
For example, the DEIR states that, "Reclaimed gravel mines could represent a hazard to groundwater quality by providing a more direct pathway for contaminants to contact groundwater and circumvent normal recharge paths, such as soil percolation."
To prevent groundwater contamination, Tulare County Health and Human Services will inspect the project area to make sure it is in compliance with the hazardous materials business plan. All fueling and vehicle maintenance will take place on "an impermeable surface" in an area away from the pit. A fence will be erected to prevent illicit dumping on or near the mining site. Also, KDWCD will take over the site in the reclamation phase, ensuring that a good steward of water resources will be managing the site.
"This project puts water where it needs to be so there is virtually no impact," George said.
The next public hearing on the DEIR will be held at 10:15 a.m. on July 14 at the Tulare County Government Plaza, 5961 S. Mooney Blvd. in Visalia. Written comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report are due at 5:30 p.m. on June 28. A final EIR will then be prepared, taking into account public comment and concerns, followed by another public hearing. Once the final EIR is in hand, the staff of the Tulare County Resource Management Agency could issue a permit to proceed with the project, possibly by this fall.
Harrald, who has been actively involved in the county's 20/25 plan, said the construction needs in Tulare County will be between 50-60 million tons of aggregate. Without the Kaweah South Project there will only be a supply of 10 million tons permitted.
"This project will provide one-third to one-half of the needed aggregate for this county," Harrald said. "This is a good project that will meet our needs of low cost, high quality aggregate and is designed to protect water and even create a water benefit."
For information on the Draft Environmental Impact Report, or to be notified of upcoming meetings, contact Patrick Ford at 733-6291. For information on Kaweah River Rock Company, contact Dave Harrald at 564-3302 or e-mail him at [email protected]