| | By Alastair Bland
Almost 30 years ago, Katherine Evatt cofounded the Foothill Conservancy, and one of the group's first challenges was protecting the Mokelumne River. Once a prolific salmon stream originating in the central Sierra Nevada, the Mokelumne became studded with dams over the years and is the primary water source for Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, Alameda, and much of the East Bay—1.4 million people in all.
Now, Evatt and other conservationists are on the cusp of victory as state officials have finally decided to consider adding nearly 40 miles of the river's middle reaches to the California Wild and Scenic Rivers system. In a report released in January, the California Natural Resources Agency recommended designating five segments of the river as wild and scenic—a status that would protect the Mokelumne from being dammed in the future, while generally not impacting existing uses of the river for recreation and water supply.
"The water projects along the river will still function, but this just means we don't have to keep fighting new dams," said Evatt, who lives just outside the Gold Rush town of Jackson, in Amador County.
The water of the Mokelumne River runs through multiple reservoirs on its way to the San Joaquin River and, eventually, to San Francisco Bay. At about 4,000 feet of elevation, the north fork of the river flows through Salt Springs Reservoir, a hydroelectric system managed by PG&E. From there, it runs through a scenic and largely undeveloped region and drops more than 3,000 vertical feet before reaching Pardee Reservoir, an important water storage facility for the East Bay Municipal Utility District. The 37 river miles between these two reservoirs are the focus of the Natural Resources Agency's study, which was released in January.
The Mokelumne, if designated, would be the first river to receive wild and scenic designation under the state law since 2005, when Cache Creek, a tributary of the lower Sacramento River, was protected. The state's Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed in 1972, four years after Congress enacted the federal law of the same name. Many, but not all, of the rivers designated by one system are also designated by the other. Together, the federal and state systems protect about 2,300 miles of California's rivers—only about 1 percent of the state's river miles. Like the federal system, the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act aims to protect rivers or river segments that are undeveloped and inaccessible, free-flowing, unpolluted, and of recreational value. Many rivers with the designation are productive trout, steelhead, and salmon streams valued by fishermen, and many are favorite destinations of river rafting enthusiasts.
The challenges these laws pose to dam projects have prompted water agencies to resist wild and scenic designation of the Mokelumne for years. "The local water agencies have spent an awful lot of time arguing there's nothing special about the Mokelumne River—that it's not eligible for designation and that doing so would prevent them from building new dams on the river, which, of course, is true," said Steve Evans, the wild and scenic program consultant for the environmental group Friends of the River.
His group and Foothill Conservancy, among other organizations, have already blocked at least two major dam projects on the Mokelumne—the Devil's Nose/Cross County Project, which would have submerged 9 miles of river canyon with a reservoir that opponents argued was not needed; and a new dam proposal in the 2000s by East Bay MUD to increase the size of Pardee Reservoir.
The latter project would have flooded a reach of Mokelumne rapids esteemed by whitewater rafters known as the Electra run. East Bay MUD eventually abandoned its dam proposal, and instead decided to join a consortium that plans to expand Los Vaqueros Reservoir, an off-river storage facility in eastern Contra Costa County.
"We're very pleased that East Bay MUD has recognized the importance of protecting this river," said Theresa Simsiman, California stewardship director of American Whitewater, a group that has been pushing for stringent protections for the "Moke," as many call the river, for decades. Simsiman says a wild and scenic designation for the middle reaches of Mokelumne would preserve several popular whitewater rafting runs.
Foothills area water agencies, however, aren't ready to unconditionally support the designation. Gene Mancebo, general manager of the Amador Water Agency, said in an email to The Monthly that residential water requirements in the area are projected to increase, according to a recent assessment, and he noted that "a wild and scenic designation at its core would prevent the construction of a dam or impoundment within designated portions of the river."
"The Amador Water Agency has taken the position previously that it would not oppose and even support a wild and scenic designation of the Mokelumne River as long as there is adequate protection for existing and future water supply needs in the proposed legislation," Mancebo added.
Evatt characterized local resistance as "a lot of fear mongering." She said that when the Amador Water Agency, along with the Calaveras County Water District and the Calaveras Public Utility District, released a forecast of future water consumption demands, they used improbably high population estimates and per capita water usage to make their calculations.
"They way overestimated the demands through 2100," she said.
At East Bay MUD, Richard Sykes, the utility district's director of water and natural resources, said in an email that his agency has "supported a California Wild and Scenic River Designation for the Mokelumne River that is protective of our water rights, facilities, and operations." Because the designated stretch of river lies upstream of Pardee Reservoir, strict protections of the river would likely only have positive effects on East Bay MUD's water quality and supply. Spokesperson Andrea Pook noted that while East Bay MUD once hoped to expand Pardee Reservoir, the utility district is now banking on enhanced conservation, groundwater storage, and several other reservoirs, including Los Vaqueros, to meet future water needs in the East Bay.
Evans of Friends of the River cautioned, however, that designating a river as wild and scenic under state law isn't an ironclad guarantee that dams won't be built. "The state legislature can always modify state laws," he noted.
However, the good news for Moke advocates is that the Legislature had never modified the state's Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in such a manner. And Evans believes that, in spite of what he considers conservative leadership of some water agencies, that protecting the Mokelumne—which could occur by 2019—would prevent any new dams on the river in perpetuity. "People in some of these local water agencies are old-school, and their solution to any water supply issue is to build another dam, and that's just not going to happen on the Mokelumne," he said.
The public can submit comments on the California Natural Resources Agency's draft report on designating the Mokelumne River through February.
The state is recommending protection for 37 miles of the Mokelumne River. File photo by Robert Gammon.