Working with mud and water to go with the flow

Michael Raffety

Nov. 5, 2010

Of the 252 employees at the El Dorado Irrigation District almost half work in Operations. Heading up that division is 24-year EID employee Tom McKinney, 48.

McKinney, who started as a meter reader, now oversees three divisions: Hydro/Watershed Management, Wastewater/Recycled Water, Drinking Water.

His crews cover a vast territory that ranges across three counties. One third of EID water comes from four alpine lakes that have been expanded by dams. On Highway 88 in Alpine County is 21,000-acre-foot Caples Lake. West on Highway 88 is 8,600-acre-foot Silver Lake in Amador County. These lakes feed into the South Fork of the American River. On the north side of the South Fork of the American, accessed from Highway 50, are 5,000-acre-foot Lake Aloha and 1,900-acre-foot Echo Lake.

Water released from these Alpine reservoirs is captured by a diversion dam near Kyburz that shunts some of the South Fork of the American River’s water into the El Dorado Canal. That canal is a combination of concrete lined ditches, tunnels and flumes. The newer flumes are precast concrete sections. The older flumes are wood, though remoteness sometimes calls for replacing rotted flume sections with new wood.

The canal runs 22.5 miles to Forebay Reservoir in Pollock Pines, where it is distributed to the Reservoir 1 Water Treatment Plant, with most of it going down a penstock to the Akin Powerhouse that puts out 21 megawatts of electricity.

The lake and canal combined are called Project 184 and their operation is strictly governed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“If we are even a half an acre-foot off we get dinged,” said EID Communications Director Deanne Kloepfer. Two hydrographers calculate water use for power, maintain required lake levels in accordance with the season and maintain flows for instream environmental use. It is part art and part science, according to McKinney, because it takes eight hours before water released from the alpine reservoirs shows up at the gauge station by the diversion dam near Kyburz.

Project 184 supplies 15,080 acre-feet of water. Sly Park’s Jenkinson Lake provides about 22,000 acre-feet. Folsom Lake supplies a maximum of 7,500 acre-feet to El Dorado Hills.
Twenty employees in the Hydro Division maintain and oversee 70 miles of ditches, with the most challenging being the El Dorado Canal. The canal and two of the alpine reservoirs took 1,500 men two years to build, completing the project in 1876 at a cost of $650,000. Just replacing the 700-foot-long Flume 51 this fall near Camp 5 in Pollock Pines cost $3.3 million. The project produced a new solid bench for the flume to replace a handstacked rock wall built in 1875. The flume itself had been relined 38 years ago and was resting on a wooden trestle 61 years old.

As EID General Manager Jim Abercrombie told an audience in El Dorado Hills Wednesday, deferring capital replacement has its risks. The risks include failure of the flumes. The entire 22.5-mile El Dorado Canal has been studied by Carlton Engineering and from that analysis EID’s Engineering Department prioritized which sections are most critical to be replaced. Abercrombie has walked the canal since becoming GM so he would know the condition of the facilities.

One of the factors adding to the flume replacement cost is slope stabilization above Flume 51. Trees were removed, questionable boulders were removed and half the slope was covered with shotcrete and anchor bolts.

The balance was covered with special matting to prevent erosion and promote grass. The hydro crew Friday was talking about the El Nino storms predicted for the weekend and coming week.

Storms can loosen up trees and boulders and push them into the canal. Snow can lead to ice that must be broken up, often by hand.

The Hydro Division employees include those who monitor and maintain the powerhouse.

Monitoring the whole system from Camp 5 is Kathy Hill, who watches for alarms triggered remotely and connected directly to her computers. Friday an alarm went off at one of the lakes as an EID employee entered the gate house.

The canal has 25 alarms that go off when the water gets too high or too low. Usually snow, a tree or a rock will block the canal and it will get high upstream of the blockage and low downstream of the blockage. The alarms tell the crews where to go. From the monitor Hill can compensate for too high a water level by remotely opening a spillway. When Camp 5 closes for the day two crew members take laptop computers home and remotely monitor the system. If they are not at their alarm-activated lap tops, they also can be reached by pagers. A rainstorm will mean additional water coming into the canal from tributary streams. The water entering the canal at the diversion dam can be reduced and excess water can be shunted off at key spillways.

Some parts of the canal can be reached by a compact tracked loader. Other parts can be reached only by walking. The new sections have a 2- foot-wide steel walkway and steel handrail. The older sections have a 1-foot-wide wood plank and wooden rails.

Hydro Manager Dan Downey said when it snows on the canal they have to snowshoe in as far as they can, then shovel their way along the walkways. Just walking on them without shoveling would turn them into slippery ice. A crew of seven works the El Dorado Canal, walking all of it after a storm. Before the cutbacks in 2008 there were 10 on the canal crew. In addition to canal maintenance, in the autumn the canal is shut down and the canal crew will rebuild flume sections themselves, usually hiring a blasting crew to create the bedrock anchors for the new trestle foundations. Then the crew builds new wooden trestles and the new wood flume.

Just upstream of the stateof- the-art Flume 51 is a new spillway station. It is hooked into PG&E power, but has a charge of nitrogen that will operate the hydraulic system and open and close the gates five times before it runs out of charge. The spillway station has a heater that keeps the interior at 50 degrees and it is rodent proof.

PG&E operated Project 184 beginning in 1928 when it acquired it from Western States Power Co. Western States, buying the project in 1916, added two alpine reservoir lakes to the project between 1917 and 1919.

Hydro Operations and Maintenance Supervisor Steve Lindstrom said PG&E used to have a ditch tender’s house every four miles. Most of those were removed as PG&E began installing remote control systems. EID’s Abercrombie, general manager since September 2009, was district manager for PG&E in Placerville when EID was negotiating to acquire Project 184. All agreed at the time he and PG&E were tough negotiators.

EID acquired the project for $1 and PG&E agreed to pay $17 million to repair it. The California Public Utilities Commission cut that figure down to $15 million. EID took over in 1999 and immediately started work to renew the FERC license.
 From Reservoir 1 Water Treatment Plant the high mountain water then goes to Reservoir 2 on Snows Road in Camino or Reservoir 3 near the Forest Genetics Institute in that community.
 From Reservoir 3 the water runs through an 18-inch water main that eventually goes under Highway 50 and uphill near the Placerville Airport to supply Placerville and Reservoir 6 near Big Cut Road.  Friday a three-man EID construction crew was working in a patch of mud to find and patch a leak on the main as it runs behind a house on Fall Trail. The crew had been looking for the main source of the leak for three or four weeks. A leak detector didn’t work because the freeway noise drowned out the sound of the water, so the crew had been digging potholes in wet spots to hunt down the leak.

The difficulty of finding it was a consequence of the main being set on a bed of pea gravel that acted as an underground stream for the leaked water. It wasn’t a big leak, but every leak was important.

There are four four-man construction-repair crews and this one three-man crew. When they finally located the source the homeowner told them the contractor installing his leach line had hit the water main with his backhoe in 1978 and tried to patch it.

Joe Young was operating the loader, Rich Gneri was supervising the crew and Clay Wick was the other crew member ready with a shovel to perform finer spade work. As McKinney and this reporter visited them they were on the source of the leak. All that remained was to expose the pipe and make the patch. It was a steel pipe with a mortar lining. If it was small enough they would weld a patch and remortar it. If it was worse they would have to shut off the main and cut it and replace a section. McKinney has 60 guys in the field at any one time. That includes 12 on water plants, 12 on sewer plants, 20 mechanics and electricians.

“These guys are in the field all the time,” he said. In 2009 his field crews responded to 2,200 service calls, with about 50 percent of those being customers’ responsibility calls. “We like to be good to our customers,” McKinney said.

During the Dec. 7 snowstorm, “I had everybody I could get out on the job. We had hundreds of calls,” McKinney said.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week there are seven field workers on call. “In big events we can get 20 people at 3 or 4 in the morning. The whole purpose is safe, reliable service,” Deanne Kloepfer said. During that big snowstorm District Counsel Tom Cumpston cross-country skied into the office to pitch in with customer service calls. To keep the 64 sewer pumping stations working during the snowstorm and power outage EID crews had to bring pumper trucks to some of the stations that didn’t have backup generators. McKinney said he is proud of the people in his department. They take public service seriously. They enjoy their work and they enjoy helping he public, he said.

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