Breathing easier: Kern River Valley leaders like Isabella Dam "fix"

LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) -- The final plans are ready for a "fix" of the two dams at Lake Isabella, and Kern River Valley leaders say they like what they hear. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is holding a series of public meetings, and also held a special tour of the site.

"They've listened to us from the minute that we got involved in this," Cheryl Borthick told Eyewitness News on Wednesday. She's the president of the Kernville Chamber of Commerce, and a local business owner.

Kern County Supervisor-elect Mick Gleason also got the update. "I'm impressed," Gleason said. "With the community and with the Army Corps of Engineers."

As Eyewitness News was first to report, the Corps uncovered new concerns with the two earth-filled dams back in 2006. The community's been waiting since then to see what engineers would do, and how that would affect their businesses and homes.

Engineers now plan to raise the top of both dams by 16 feet and build a "buttress" on the downstream side of the Auxiliary Dam. To construct that, they'll use materials blasted out near the Main Dam as they first build a new spillway at that facility. Plans also call for adding new drain and filter systems, and re-aligning the Borel Canal at the Auxiliary Dam.

The two dams were completed in 1953, and engineers now say they've discovered active earthquake faults in the area, they're worried about water "seeping" through, and the dams aren't high enough to prevent "over topping" in a worst-case storm event.

After the years of study, the Corps now has the plan to address those situations. But, local residents know they'll have to deal with the effects of construction.

Gerald Wenstrand leases ranch land, and built his dream house just below the Auxiliary Dam. "It appears at times it's in the storage area," Wenstrand says, referring to his property. He'll have to figure out where to move some of his operations, "That's a financial burden and so forth," Wenstrand said.

That's why he was at a public meeting the Corps held Tuesday night in Kernville, and he was at the briefing at the dam location. He's hearing he'll be compensated. "That can be possible, in the words I was told," Wenstrand said. "But everything's kind of on the fence." He still believes the project is important.

As a business-owner in Kernville, Borthick worries about impacts on the important tourism industry when construction is underway. She's worried about where crews will stay.

"Are they going to take up the rooms in Kernville? Are they going to fill the restaurants?" she asked the Corps spokesmen. "And not leave room for our visitors that come up year round." She was assured there will only be around 150 workers at a time, and many may rent apartments -- since major construction will take about three years.

Others in the valley worry about impacts on Highway 178 and Highway 155. Each has to be moved over for a stretch when the crests of the dams are raised. Highway 155 will have to be relocated for about a mile, and 178 for less than a mile. Wednesday, Corps spokesmen said their agency will design the road changes, but they'll be done to Caltrans standards.

They'll also work to avoid any road closures.

The Corps has a public meeting set for Wednesday night at the Senior Citizen Center in Lake Isabella, and another one starting at 6:00 p.m.Thursday night at the Rabobank Convention Center in Bakersfield.

More design and planning work will continue, and engineers say major construction will start in 2017 and continue for five to six years. Another big concern is how much the lake water level will be lowered during the work.

Local leaders are relieved about the latest plans for that. "The draw-down of the lake is probably not going to be any more than it is right now," Borthick said. "And, it's not going to happen until 2020." Engineers plan to do that during the winter, when water levels are lower anyway. The lower water period is now set for late 2020, through the following March.

The project is one of the biggest and most important, Corps spokesmen say.

"It's one of the highest-priority projects, probably in the top ten," Rick Poeppelman said. He's the dam safety officer for the project. He says the Isabella Dams are a focus because of the significance of the problems and risks at the two structures, balanced against the consequences if the dams failed.

"The consequence is the population downstream, and in Bakersfield," Poeppelman said. He notes the area has grown significantly since the dams were built in 1953.

But, as they factor that, and improve the dams -- engineers are also considering the project impacts on people around the area. "I think we've got a pretty good plan that kind of balances all those things together," he said.

Supervisor Mick Gleason is glad to hear that. "They're demonstrating a significant interest in public concern, and they're interested in making the dam a successful project," he said. But, Gleason was also asking hard questions about whether there will be enough funding to complete the dam fix.

Poeppelman set the cost at $400- to $600 million, and Gleason wants assurances the funding will come through to complete the project. The Corps said they feel good about funding because the Isabella project's considered such a high priority.

Gleason thinks at this point they've got a good foundation of cooperation between the Corps and the community, and that'll go a long way to ensuring that the project is completed -- regardless of issues that come up.

"I'm confident that they've got the right people on the job," Gleason said about the Corps. "And I'm confident that certainly this community up here has the right people involved so we'll tackle that problem -- each of them -- as we come along."