Placer County river canal break spawns lawsuits over PG&E's response

Published: Tuesday, May. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 28, 2013 - 12:02 pm

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is facing legal action over its handling of the 2011 canal break that forced thousands of Placer County residents to ration water.

Two lawsuits filed separately by property owners abutting the Colfax-area canal – Don Axton and Alan Shuttleworth – claim the Northern California power provider failed to properly maintain the Bear River Canal, bungled the response to the break and failed to adequately restore affected property afterward.

The lawsuits seek millions of dollars in damages.

On April 19, 2011, a 40-foot section of the Bear River Canal in a remote area below Rollins Reservoir broke, forcing water cutbacks to all Placer County Water Agency customers and dramatic reductions for agricultural customers. The canal, maintained by PG&E, is the main water source for PCWA customers.

Concern among residents was palpable when water agency officials delivered the news of cutbacks at town hall meetings. But thanks to water from surrounding agencies, an inventive water work-around and spring rains, very few customers had to go without water, said Joe Parker, PCWA finance director.

Paul Moreno, a PG&E spokesman, defended the investor-owned utility's response to the incident, saying it went above and beyond in quickly responding to the canal rupture and getting the water flowing again ahead of schedule.

Axton doesn't see it that way. PG&E should have done more to address the aging canal earlier, he said, noting that a PG&E inspection a month before the break cataloged cracking and slumping in the same area as the failure.

"It was cracking. It was starting to give way. It was failing," Axton said.

A May 19 incident report on the break from PG&E to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission noted that workers, during an unplanned water outage, had used a grout injection to fill the voids.

Moreno said they did "common routine maintenance" 20 feet away from where a landslide occurred. He characterized that work as "not in the area where the landslide occurred."

The PG&E report suggests that unusually heavy rainfall that winter and spring likely caused a landslide that severed the canal.

Axton believes that canal failure caused the land to give way, not the other way around.

PG&E's investigation into the landslide did not reach a determination of the cause of the slide, Moreno said.

Another issue raised by the the lawsuits is the speed of PG&E's response.

In the six hours between the time downstream alarms sounded at 1:22 a.m. and the efforts of PG&E workers to shut off the water flow in the 6-foot-wide, 6-foot-deep canal, the cascading water washed away tons of soil and vegetation as it made its way to the Bear River below.

"If they had shut it off three hours earlier, there would be far less damage," Axton said.

Moreno said crews followed protocol and worked in the early morning darkness to respond to the alarm. At that time, they could not remotely shut off the water. The system has since been upgraded to allow by remote control the spill gates to be opened and the head gate to be closed.

Axton claims land restoration was treated as an afterthought to PG&E's response. As a result, he said, the soil is of poor quality and planted saplings are sparse.

Moreno said the company worked with the landowners to customize the restoration until their demands became untenable.

PG&E did rebuild Axton's trail to the Bear River and also built him a bridge across the canal, but the difference in the before and after landscape is stark.

The wooded aesthetic of property owned by Axton and his wife, which is bisected by the canal, has been washed away, he said.

Axton, an industrial artist, displays his interest in aesthetics through the artworks that adorn his rust-colored home and the manicured path toward the river.

Directly beneath the new reinforced section of canal is a 30-foot slope of a coarse, tan-colored concrete and sand material called gunite. Below is a mix of exposed rock – imported by PG&E to buttress the hillside – and rocks covered by a thin layer of soil. California poppies and other flowering plants able to survive direct sun and harsh climates brighten the landscape.

"This is one section that will never be natural," Axton said, standing near the end of a trail from his home to a perch near the rushing Bear River. "You can see how forested either side is. And then there is this big gash."

Call The Bee's Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @newsfletch.

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