Pinball wizards: Who is responsible for the abandoned Borel Canal?

Photo by Shannon Rapose / Kern Valley Sun; The Borel Canal, now empty, runs through Lake Isabella. With the Dam Safety Modification Project underway and the canal officially decommissioned, affected homeowners are now wondering what will become of it.

By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun

As work continues at Isabella’s Auxiliary Dam to seal the water release outlet at Borel Canal, little is being discussed about what will happen to the rest of the Borel Canal that travels across private and public lands.

The Corps of Engineers recently acquired the easement from Southern California Edison on a section of the Borel Canal that runs under Auxiliary Dam. Construction crews are in the process of abandoning the easement as part of the Isabella Dam Safety Modification Project. Once the abandonment is complete, that action will effectively cause the decommissioning of the Borel Hydro powerhouse, since the water needed to power the 12-megawatt facility will no longer flow. The action will also abolish the need for the canal.

There are more questions than answers regarding what will be done to the remaining 6.5 miles of the Borel Canal that continues downstream from the outlet at Auxiliary dam. The concrete canal runs adjacent to and through approximately 50 separate parcels, many of which are undeveloped.

Tom and Linda Schwass own two parcels along the canal and have been trying to get answers to their questions for the past 2 years.

“Nobody wants to be held accountable,” Tom Schwass said. “It’s like a pinball machine. Southern California Edison pushes it off to the Corps of Engineers and the Corps pushes it back to SCE, and SCE then pushes it on to FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission). They bounce it around like a pinball back and forth. Eventually, the ball will fall into a hole and it’s forgotten.”

It was during a public meeting in March of 2016 that the Corps first announced to community residents their plan to acquire the Borel Canal easement from SCE in order to abandon and seal it as part of the Isabella Dam Safety Modification Project (DSMP). At that time, the Corps acknowledged that the easement abandonment would lead to the decommissioning of the Borel Hydropower Project.

The Corps had identified the Borel Canal as being a safety risk to Auxiliary Dam due to seismic activity and erosion along the conduit. Initially, the Corps considered construction of a tunnel designed to go around the Auxiliary Dam to bypass the seismic fault. Cost of the bypass tunnel was estimated at $40 to $60 million. The tunnel alternative was dropped in favor of the easement acquisition and abandonment.

Corps officials first identified the need to acquire and abandon the 1,300-foot section of easement in 2012; however, at that time, SCE planned to continue operations of the Borel hydropower project. The easement agreement was reached between the Corps and SCE last month and construction got underway to seal the canal outlet works.

Shortly after the Corps announced their plans to abandon Borel Canal, Schwass sent a letter to the Corps and SCE asking questions about what would happen to the remaining portion of the Borel Canal that runs through his and other privately-owned properties in Lake Isabella and Bodfish.

In his 2016 letter, Schwass wrote that he believed the money saved by not having to build a bypass tunnel should go toward the cost of removing the canal, saying that the Corps should pay SCE for removing the canal as part of the easement acquisition, since the canal would become part of the DSMP.

Schwass has not received a response to his letters from either the Corps or SCE.

Others have questioned who will pay for the removal of the 6.5 miles of dry and dilapidated canal.

In a 2016 letter to the Corps, Marsha Smith, owner and publisher of the Kern Valley Sun, wrote that at some point, the abandoned flume would have to be removed and if not included in the DSMP, it would have to be looked at by SCE down the road. At that point, Smith wrote, the cost would likely be passed on and absorbed by the rate payers. Smith stated additional concerns that the abandoned flume would become a catch-all for various safety hazards created by standing rain water which would lead to unwanted mosquito infestation and dumping of trash.
Schwass said he is frustrated at the lack of communication from SCE.

“The Corps only wanted to acquire the portion of the canal at their project and say it is up to SCE to do something with the rest of the canal. No one is addressing what is going to happen,” Schwass said.

SCE is reserved in their comments about the canal. In a recent email, a spokesperson for the utility company said, “Because the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in September condemned a portion of the Borel Canal necessary for the operation of SCE’s Borel Hydroelectric Project, it is likely that the remainder of the project will be decommissioned. Going forward, SCE will work with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the community to determine the best disposition of the Borel powerhouse and any remaining structures.”

According to SCE, Borel Hydroelectric project was built around 1904. The powerhouse has been offline for more than 5 years due to low lake levels following years of drought.
Schwass said when he purchased his property in 1976, the canal was being used for its intended purpose and carried water to the powerhouse. The canal had the right to be there, he said, as operational equipment for the powerhouse.

But that has changed and the canal has not carried water for years. Now, it is a canal with missing sections of concrete, small puddles of standing water and a growing amount of trash.
Schwass said he has heard talk in the community about turning the canal into a pedestrian path or bike path, a plan he is adamantly opposed to.

“I don’t want people walking or riding on my property. It’s a dry canal so you will have homeless people living in it, bad guys using it to get away from the cops. And in low areas where you have standing water all the time, it is a breeding ground for mosquitoes,” he said.

Kern County Sheriff Sgt. Johnny Frisbie said he and his officers at the Kern Valley substation are aware that people frequently use the dry canal as a means of travel and that some of the area’s homeless population go into the canal at night. But, he said, the sheriff’s office is not getting a lot of calls for service relating to the canal. The most recent call came 2 weeks ago, when two motorcycles were stolen from the Kern Valley Search and Rescue storage facility and set on fire in the canal.

While the canal is patrolled as needed, it is not part of a regular patrol, Frisbie said, adding that any patrol must be on foot.
Schwass said he would like to see the canal removed.

“Fill it in, or tear it out. We want it to be removed. But SCE should let us know what they are going to do. We don’t want to see them dragging their feet and 20 years from now, the thing is still sitting there.”