Settlement okays seismic retrofit

A group of Berkeley hills residents filed a settlement agree ment Friday with EBMUD, bringing an end to more than two years of legal skirmishes and allowing the utility to begin construction next month on a seismic upgrade of the East Bay's main water supply.

EBMUD, residents agree to upgrading water supply with tunnel that will cross Hayward fault

By Robert Gammon, The Daily Review

A group of Berkeley hills residents filed a settlement agree ment Friday with EBMUD, bringing an end to more than two years of legal skirmishes and allowing the utility to begin construction next month on a seismic upgrade of the East Bay's main water supply.

East Bay Municipal Utility District plans to spend $31.7 million on shoring up the 75-year-old Claremont Water Tunnel. The 18,000-foot-long aqueduct runs underground from Orinda to Berkeley and provides water for about 840,000 people, including all of Berkeley and Oakland.

"I'm glad (the legal battles) are finally over," said David Richardson, a member of EBMUD's board of directors. "I think both sides won."

At the center of the dispute between residents and EBMUD has been the utility's proposal to build a 1,500-foot bypass tunnel around the section of the aqueduct that crosses the Hayward fault.

Opponents of the project first contended EBMUD should construct an entirely new tunnel to ensure the region's water supply is fully protected during a major earthquake.

If a large section of the old tunnel, which is built with unreinforced concrete, were to collapse in an earthquake, it likely would close the entire aqueduct for up to six months. Such a catastrophe would cripple the East Bay's ability to fight fires sparked in the earthquake's aftermath.

EBMUD's own consultants noted previously that local fire departments would be hard-pressed to battle even a small fire if the 175 million gallons of water a day that flows through the Claremont Water Tunnel suddenly is shut off.

The odds of a powerful earthquake on the Hayward fault are relatively high. According to the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, there is a 32 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or greater quake on the Hayward fault by 2030.

The residents sued EBMUD in 2002 and won a judgment ordering the utility to study alternatives to its bypass plan, including the construction of a new tunnel.

But EBMUD concluded in its environmental impact report the old tunnel was most vulnerable in the area where it crosses the 900-foot-wide Hayward fault. A bypass tunnel, EBMUD said, through the fault zone would protect the water supply. The utility noted the bypass was much cheaper than building a new tunnel. To repair the rest of the old tunnel, EBMUD plans to inject concrete into its walls.

Building the bypass, however, required EBMUD to attain easements from homeowners because the 1,500-foot new tunnel section runs beneath their houses. When 13 homeowners balked, EBMUD filed eminent domain lawsuits two months ago to take sections of their land.

The 13 homeowners then countersued, arguing the easements were far bigger than EBMUD described in the EIR. The utility had said the bypass tunnel would be 9 feet wide and 12 feet tall, but the utility was demanding in some instances easements 50 feet wide and 70 feet tall, the homeowners said in court papers. Such large easements, they argued, would prohibit the homeowners from building on sections of their own property.

EBMUD argued it needed the larger easements because it planned to shoot rock bolts into the ground surrounding the bypass tunnel to stabilize it. The residents countered by hiring their own tunneling expert, Stanford University professor Russell Clough, who contended rock bolts were unnecessary and dangerous.

The case was scheduled to go to trial next month, but the two sides reached a settlement in recent weeks and filed the official agreement on Friday in Alameda County Superior Court in Hayward.

Under the settlement, some of the easements were diminished by up to 30 percent, said Leila Moncharsh, the attorney for the residents. EBMUD also agreed to abandon easements on the section of the old tunnel that will shut down permanently when the new bypass opens.

"There are some good things in the settlement for the (homeowners)," said Moncharsh, who also is one of the homeowners affected by the bypass. "But it's too bad we're not getting a new tunnel out of this. There will still be 16,000 feet of tunnel that is nearly 80 years old, and no one knows how long it will last."

The settlement also calls for EBMUD to pay each homeowner $2,500, plus the 13 homeowners will divide $27,500 paid by the utility, said EBMUD spokesman Charles Hardy. In addition, the homeowners reserve the right to seek more money if EBMUD damages their property. And EBMUD has agreed to hire the homeowner's tunneling expert as a consultant.

The bypass construction is expected to begin in mid-June, Hardy said. EBMUD then plans to shut down the entire water tunnel this winter during the rainy season to begin repairing it. The aqueduct must be emptied for workers to get inside. The entire project is scheduled to be completed sometime in 2006.

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