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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Bly Tunnel! (But Were Afraid to Ask) Part Five


Did you miss the other parts in our series?

Here are links so you can catch up and read them all

Part One Where we detail the physical aspects of the lake and the earliest records of exploration

Part TwoIn which we will begin to look at historic lake levels and the different natural factors which have caused Eagle Lake to rise and fall… including earthquakes!

Part ThreeIn which we retrace our steps and take a look at the various attempts to tap the lake, including 3 tunnels you never knew existed!

Part Four – In which we find out where all of this water was supposed to be going! Featuring the lush garden regions of Amedee, Standish and Litchfield.

Part FiveAbsolutely everything else you need to know about the Bly Tunnel up till now.

Everywhere we go these days people are talking about the Bly Tunnel at Eagle Lake. We all read the pertinent articles in the Lassen County Times, try and absorb facts and figures and listen to the arguments in what has become an incredibly divisive issue.

Why does this particular controversy raise the ire of so many? Just attempting to put a lot of these facts down in writing is a scary proposition given the extreme nature of the arguments. We have tried to exhaustively track down as many prima facie documents as possible, relying on the opinions or studies by experts.

Along with those opinions we hope to give you our own SusanvilleStuff primer on the colorful history, unique geology and over 150 years of political battles surrounding California’s second largest natural lake.

Part Five – Where we watch as Leon Bly takes on the lake, and chronicle the 90-year aftermath of the project.

On a gorgeous, breezy Saturday in May of 1923, a grand celebration was held in Standish to commemorate the successful completion of the incredible Eagle Lake irrigation project!

Huge crowds attended – more than 5,000 people. It was all of the excitement of the Lassen County Fair and a three-ring circus rolled into just one day and one awe-inspiring project, a project that after fifty years of brutal assaults on the lake had finally brought water to the desert.

An 80-piece orchestra on the banks of the Bly ditch played at the opening. Local residents dressed in their finest. They told their children to remember this moment as one of the most important days in the valley’s history.

As water flowed politicians spoke of the glorious tomorrows in the Honey Lake Valley.

Leon Bly stands next to one of the canals of the Baxter and Tule Irrigation District, May 1923.

California Governor Richardson talked of this next, great agricultural empire, one with, “better soil, water and sunlight than that of any region in California or the west.”

More than 1,000 people attended the banquet and dance that evening at the company hall near Litchfield where they found, “a spread lay out on more than 100-foot of table, upon which resided the most succulent goods and produce that the Honey Lake Valley has to offer.”

The man of the hour was Leon Bly. Amesbury in Eagle Lake describes him as a, “tall, handsome, energetic and ambitious man.” A genius who had finally succeeded where so many others had failed. It was almost as if he had single-handedly taken drill and dynamite to the mountain and freed the water.

On that spring day in 1923 the Reno Gazette said of Leon Bly, “We want to say now; there is no man that ever lived in Lassen County that will have accomplished more for its general welfare than he. Not only will he have benefited the present generation but those that will follow.”

How the project began

Ten years earlier, in 1913, Leon Bly was working as Secretary of the Tehama Irrigation & Power Company in Red Bluff and visited Lassen County with other members of the Red Bluff Chamber of Commerce. Bly was an electrical engineer with experience in large scale reclamation projects.

While in Susanville he was invited on a fishing trip to Eagle Lake and became immediately fascinated by the vast body of untapped water and the half-century of efforts to exploit the lake for irrigation.

It was wealthy, powerful Malvena Gallatin who invited Bly to the lake. Gallatin was building her summer mansion at the south end of Eagle Lake and most of her lands were being flooded by the rising waters

The lake had continuously risen at an alarming rate for thirty years, through dry and wet years, and there was no reason to believe it would stop anytime soon.

Leon Bly taking soundings at the lake in the ‘Pelican’

Gallatin paid for Bly’s initial study and he began sounding the lake’s depth. Despite all of the earlier attempts at tapping the lake this was the very first time anyone would accurately map it.

Using Oscar Rankin’s ‘Pelican’ Bly spent the entire year taking readings and creating the survey of the lake’s bottom.

Depth survey of Eagle Lake as sounded by Leon Bly ~ Map courtesy Dr. Owen Bateson


In 1914 and 1915 Mt. Lassen was rocked by a series of eruptions leading up to its most spectacular in May of 1915.

Ash and vapor shot up 25,000 feet and fell as far away as Winnemucca, Nevada.

Five million feet of timber were knocked flat. Twenty-ton boulders were carried miles on mud flows twelve feet deep.

Med Arnold, grandson of Susanville town father Isaac Roop was at Eagle Lake during that explosive eruption. “We were camping out, fishing, trying to eat our dinner and couldn’t figure out why our eggs tasted so poorly,” he recalled.

“Then we noticed they were all filled with grit. The next morning the lake was all covered with ashes. There was a mountain between us and the eruption and we never did understand what had happened until we got back to town.”

The Plan

In March of 1916 Bly formally announced his 1.25 million dollar plan. He asked the towns of Standish, Litchfield and Wendel to form an irrigation district to bond the project. Out of this came the Tule and Baxter Irrigation District.

Up at Eagle Lake, “Water rights were easily obtained because lake levels had risen and inundated much of the grazing lands,” Amesbury says.

“Spaldings abandoned their home to the rising waters and Gallatins were looking apprehensively at the rising level also.”

Originally Bly planned an opening at the lake’s surface, but changed his mind and decided to drill 45 feet below the lake level, which would shrink the lake’s size to approximately one third of the original.

According to Amesbury if the tunnel had been opened at the 45 foot mark the predicted maximum depth of the lake would have only been 63 feet. Only the southern end of the lake would have remained and it would have not extended north past pelican point.

Bly’s water rights were issued in early 1920, and the permit to dig the tunnel was granted on December 28th, of the same year.

The plans had to be almost entirely changed because in the five years between their inception and approval the lake level, after 30 years of rising, had dropped 6 feet. From this moment on Bly was always racing to catch up with the rapidly lowering lake.

Grant Smith and Co., a large-scale construction firm from Seattle, Washington, was given the contract for $950,000 and work commenced.

A tunnel through a mountain ~ Engineer’s Drawing of the Bly Tunnel after completion – Thanks to Dr. Bateson

Drilling began on the edge of Upper Murrerr Meadow and pushed 2,600 feet horizontally towards the lake through the basalt rock of the mountain.

The construction brought, according to the Reno Gazette, “A veritable army of man-power and equipment bent on the unified goal of dominating nearly 8,000 feet of mountain.”

Detail of plans showing the adit at the 2,600 foot mark

At the 2,600 foot mark an access tunnel was driven at a steep incline through which the tailings of the tunnel were taken up and out. This feature is called an adit, from the Latin word for access, and is still visible today.

Mules moved ore cars on tracks in the main tunnel and an engine and wench pulled the materials up and out of this shaft.

Amesbury remarks that the mules being used to haul the aggregate had been kept underground for some five months. When they were brought to the surface the poor animals became panic stricken by the light and headed back into the tunnel.

By the spring of 1922 3,500 feet of tunnel had been excavated. Then something started to go very wrong.

Even though they were still almost a thousand feet from the lake, the construction company couldn’t keep water out of the tunnel. After the leaky tunnel bore through a fault that crossed its path conditions deteriorated rapidly.

Engineers used cement to line the portions of the tunnel where the water was flooding in. In the sections where the tunnel pierced solid rock no lining was used.

Detail of plans showing the original tunnel and the improvised cut.

As the crew worked slowly towards the lake, uncontrollable water gushed into the tunnel through massive fissures in the mountain. Amesbury marvels that, “One attempt to pump concrete into these fissures showed concrete emerging some 600 feet out in the lake.

An engineer from Grant Smith & Co., is quoted in testimony during the later lawsuit as saying, “It was a mess. There was so much water in the mountain that the lake was in all practicality unreachable at the 40-foot level.”

Finally, despite massive pumping apparatus working night and day to keep the water at bay, Bly’s plans had to be altered and the tunnel slanted upward to the surface of the lake.

In what would be one of the absolute worst miscalculations in our narrative, this change of plans would reverberate in court battles and ultimately lead to the failure of the project. In all reality this mistake would also save Eagle Lake from becoming an ecological nightmare.

The Bly Tunnel outlet in Upper Murrer Meadow at its peak flow, 1923

Water in the Honey Lake Valley

Amesbury said it was difficulties at tunnel that prevented delivery of water in 1923. Purdy says it was a water rights issue that kept the water tied up all summer. Whatever the reason it wouldn’t be until the first week in October that any water would make it from Eagle Lake to the Honey Lake Valley, too late to irrigate 1923’s crops.

To celebrate the water’s arrival Litchfield again threw a grand party with a dance given by Tont’s Orchestra and farmers in the valley were ecstatic. Better late than never! But the excitement was short lived when in the spring Bly found the lake had dropped below the tunnel entrance!

Leon Bly at the inlet to the tunnel

Shareholders of the Baxter and Tule District were livid when they found out that the tunnel plans had been altered to slope up to the lake’s surface rather than penetrating at the 45 foot level.

What the district found out was that although they hadn’t been informed of the change, the construction company’s contract with Bly did have provisions for altering the tunnel outlet if problems arose.

Bly settled with the district out of court, and Grant Smith & Co., were found to have satisfactorily completed the project based on the specifications Bly had given them.

The following year Grant Smith & Co. would be back in court facing allegations that they had only made the cut in front of the tunnel three feet deep as opposed to the nine feet called for in the plans. This shallower cut reduced water flow into the tunnel and Grant Smith & Co. ended up settling with the district out of court for $15,000.

The canal in front of the tunnel was lowered four times to permit water to enter. During these dry years according to Amesbury, “Some federal financial assistance was obtained but Mr. Riddell, Engineer for Baxter and Tule Irrigation District, and several others worked without pay for several years. The Honey Lake farmers worked themselves and donated food for the crews.”

As the district chased the level of the lake down at a little over a 1.5 feet each year they became accustomed to the fact that after nearly every irrigation season another cut had to be made to lower the tunnel’s inlet.

Because of this endless need for deepening of the cut, and no water to show for it, by 1932 no money was left for the project. That final year the Susanville Chamber of Commerce held fundraisers to pay for contractors to work at the tunnel. Even in the best of years there was never enough water, and after a bad year the lack of water forced districts to foreclose on properties.

Leon Bly died November 21st, 1942 in Tehama County. Amesbury says, “Lack of money, coupled with dry years doomed the project. Leon Bly, his health broken on this project, passed away, some say from asthma, others a broken heart. It was not determined whether he actually benefited financially from this venture.”

The next 60 years – Ecological aftermath, political fallout and the lake that couldn’t be tamed.

Beginning in the late 1940’s Baxter and Tule Irrigation spent most of the company’s resources trying to maintain the water rights on property which by all standards they had abandoned after letting the Bly project lie fallow for so many years.

The district filed for bankruptcy in 1946, lost the Eagle Lake water rights in 1947, regained the water rights in 1948 and 6 years later after desperately attempting to resurrect the project the district was dissolved.

In the summer of 1955 as the water rose in the lake again an ‘unknown group of citizens’ filled the intake channel of the defunct tunnel with sand, cutting it off from the lake.

By 1959 the lake level had recovered to a point where the Baxter and Tule Irrigation District, despite their bankruptcy status, filed again for water rights and were denied.

The final application for Eagle Lake water was made by a group of ranchers in the early 1960’s.

Amesbury writes that, “This application was for the supplemental water for fall irrigations. Their land lay in a position for water delivery where little if any of the district’s dilapidated system would be needed or used.”

On August 24th, 1961 the California State Water Rights Board handed down a decision that read, “The evidence presented at the hearing indicates and the board finds that except in infrequent years, all Eagle Lake water is required to remain in Eagle Lake for recreational, stock watering and related uses, which beneficial uses are both pursuant to existing rights and in the public interest; that insufficient unappropriated water is available to justify approval of subject applications; and that it would best conserve the public interest to reject and deny all of subject applications.”

Rebirth of a lake

In 1973 the Bureau of Land Management canceled the tunnel right of way across public lands, and the following year the tunnel entrance was collapsed and filled in with sand and rock. After the entrance was blocked, despite severe drought conditions, Eagle Lake began gaining 6 to 8 inches per year.

In an important decision, one that still has deep legal ramifications today, the State of California determined in 1977 that ‘intercepted spring flow’ in the tunnel was to be allocated to the Murrerr Ranch.

The decision was based on the fact that there exist historical records of massive springs in the meadow prior to any tunnel projects. Murrerr’s contention was that the tunnel was built directly through the spring, which trapped water in the tunnel, interrupting the natural flow into the meadow.

In 1983 the water level reached a benchmark that the BLM had long feared. Ken Griffin, an engineer for California’s Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board said in an interview that if Eagle Lake reached 5,110 feet, “there is reason to be concerned that there could be a massive failure of the tunnel.” At the time the lake was around 5,108 feet.

Detail of BLM plans for the permanent cement plug, installed in 1986

After several years of garnering public comment and gathering the necessary agency approvals the BLM installed a permanent concrete plug half-way through the tunnel.

The cement plug was designed with an access pipe and valve system to, according to the BLM, “allow approximately five cubic feet per second (cfs) to flow through, in accordance with the water right opinion issued by the State of California in 1977.”

Detail of the BLM’s permanent plug in the tunnel. The red pipe is the 8-inch diameter bypass pipe.

In 2009 the State Water Resources Control Board issued a letter reversing their own 1977 decision, deciding instead that there are no downstream rights to the water in the tunnel.

The one caveat in this reversal was that the, “State Department of Fish and Game states that loss of lake water through the tunnel is insignificant, but BLM should analyze the impacts of curtailing tunnel water flow on Willow Creek habitat and fisheries downstream.”

In late 2011 the Department of Fish and Game asked the State Water Control Board to close the Bly Tunnel’s 8-inch bypass pipe, explaining that they found the “water release is an unreasonable method of diversion.”

Last Thursday morning, February 2nd, 2012, BLM’s Eagle Lake Field Manager Ken Collum closed and locked the valves inside the Bly Tunnel.

BLM Eagle Lake Field Manager Ken Collum closing the valve in the Bly Tunnel bypass. The valves are at the midway point in the tunnel and you can see the cement plug in the background.

Collum explained the action, “The determining factors for me were letters that we recently received from the California State Water Quality Control Board Division of Water Rights and from the California Department of Fish and Game, both reversing earlier opinions on the need for groundwater flowing through the pipe.”

“The water quality control board reversed an opinion dating to 1977 and said there are no downstream rights to this water flow. Additionally, the DFG determined that the groundwater seepage from the tunnel is insignificant to downstream fish and wildlife resources.”

That brings us to the end of our special series. There is a lot more information out there about Eagle Lake and if you are interested I encourage you to pick up the following two books;

Tim Purdy’s book Eagle Lake is by far the most comprehensive study of the lake ever written. If you are curious about Eagle Lake history you can pick up a copy of the book at Margie’s Book Nook on Main Street.

Dr. Robert Amesbury’s book Eagle Lake, and various essays he authored for the Lassen County Historical Society are a wealth of knowledge. Amesbury’s book, which is more anecdotal than Purdy’s, is also available at Margie’s Book Nook.

Details on the BLM’s February action are contained in categorical exclusion and decision record documents available online at www.blm.gov/ca/eaglelake.


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