Trails groups, Town raise red flag on geothermal project

Meeting of rec user groups set for Jan. 14

One of the thorniest recreation issues in years began to emerge this past week, and it all has to do with the laying of a geothermal pipeline near Shady Rest Park.

“This is huge,” said John Wentworth of the Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access Foundation (MLTPA).

“There is no physical infrastructure in the Town of Mammoth Lakes where you have a gate or fence or any kind of physical barrier that inhibits any kind of recreation or traffic or movement through the forest,” he said.

“This is going to be the first of a kind for this community. Pipeline in some places may be three pipes deep in some places, and you could be running into pipes in the woods without having any idea of where the next crossing is, or how to get over these things.

“It really changes the nature of recreation in this community.”

At issue is a plan by Ormat Technologies, Inc. to extend its operations to the west side of U.S. 395 by drilling as many as 16 new wells. The pipeline to bring the geothermal brine from those wells to the plant is the issue that came before the Town Council on Jan. 2, then again at the Mammoth Lakes Trails Committee on Monday, Jan. 7, and finally the Mammoth Recreation Commission on Wednesday, Jan. 9.

The project, just now on the long road to a decision, is still in the “Public Comment” phase, which ends on Jan. 30, but Wentworth and associated user groups are not waiting.

A meeting at the library is set for Monday, Jan. 14, at 2 p.m. to hash out some of the concerns that are shared by runners, hikers, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, off-road motorcyclists and anyone else who has an issue.

The town, meanwhile, sent a five-page, single-spaced letter to the Bishop Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management with its own laundry list of concerns about the development project.

The town’s concerns have to do with air quality; land use; recreation; noise; transportation/traffic; visual impacts, and surface and groundwater resources.

The town also raised questions having to do with socioeconomics, such as housing needs, wages for project workers, and impacts on campsites during the construction phases.

But it was recreation that took center stage as the New Year began, starting with the town, which complained that Ormat had not properly analyzed or mitigated a number of concerns, beginning with the pipeline itself.

“The introduction of new barriers may severely limit the use of this as a trailhead, because recreation options, particularly from the trailhead to the south and west, will be impeded by the pipelines.”

The town urged Ormat to examine more undergrounding opportunities.

Also, the town complained that the analysis focused almost entirely on the effects of winter recreation and “does not provide an adequate assessment on the effects on summer recreation, particularly the blocking of trails and non-system roads that would be caused by the additional pipelines.”

Among the other difficulties the council had with the plan had to do with noise, rejecting a company stance that any increase in noise would be unnoticeable because of “typically noisy activities” that occur in Shady Rest Park.

“While there are some occasions when noisy sporting and other events take place at Shady Rest,” the council said, “for the majority of the day and throughout the year, park users enjoy a quiet environment and participate in a range of recreation activities that are not noisy.”

Finally, the council in its comments said, “the town believes that if the noise analysis were properly conducted, noise impacts would be found to be significant.”

Wentworth suggested to the Recreation Commission that it prepare a financial plan to deal with unexpected costs the town may have to pay for as-yet unidentified problems.

“The town, as you know, is in a difficult financial situation,” he said. “If there are things that happen out at Shady Rest that would require mitigation or resources to fix, the town’s not going to have any money to do that.

“It’s obviously a very import recreation area. I don’t think it’s going to be possible to cover every contingency. But should something come up that we haven’t anticipated, there should be a financing mechanism to deal with it, because we as a community aren’t going to have the money to deal with that.”