The Mokelumne River is breathtaking. Nestled in the Sierra Foothills, the clean, clear river teems with trout and runs through a sloping canyon ringed by wildflowers, native grasses, and chaparral along with oaks, alders, and bay laurel trees. Every year, thousands of people flock to the Gold Rush area southeast of Sacramento to kayak, fish, swim, and hike. But the gorgeous river is now under serious threat, because the East Bay Municipal Utility District wants to build a four hundred-foot dam that would turn a scenic stretch of the Mokelumne into a giant reservoir.
East Bay MUD says it needs the water from the new dam to slake the thirst of its customers over the next thirty years. The public agency has owned a large stretch of the Mokelumne for more than eight decades, and pipes the pristine water more than one hundred miles to homes and businesses in much of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The river provides about 90 percent of the water we use. But it's the agency's biggest water users — mostly in Contra Costa County — who are driving the need for the new dam. In fact, the new dam would be unnecessary if East Bay MUD simply forced its heaviest users to conserve more water.
Indeed, the story of the new dam represents another chapter in the long-running battle between environmentalists, who advocate for strict conservation, and suburban residents, who want to keep their lawns green and their swimming pools filled. It also highlights how East Bay MUD sometimes views its primary mission less as a steward of the environment than as a business that sells water to its customers. Case in point: The agency board of directors has repeatedly resisted any effort to levy steep financial penalties against water wasters — who, not coincidentally, happen to be East Bay MUD's best customers. Such pricing plans have driven down the demand for water in other areas of the arid West.
Why? The reason dates back to the early 1990s. During the drought of 1991 and 1992, environmentalists controlled the East Bay MUD board, and they adopted stiff penalties for heavy water users. Not surprisingly, the pricing scheme worked extremely well. Water demand plummeted by about 30 percent. If similar penalties were implemented today, there would be no need for a new dam on the Mokelumne River. But the steep penalties also engendered a strong backlash. Many Contra Costa County residents revolted, storming agency board meetings and screaming at their elected representatives. Some even refused to pay their bills. By the mid-1990s, developers had teamed with suburbanites to oust the environmental majority. Ever since, the board has refused to go back to the steep pricing plan.
Instead, the board is now angering residents in the Sierra Foothills. At two recent public meetings, East Bay MUD board members were met by packed audiences and near universal condemnation. Foothills residents from nearby towns such as Sutter Creek and Jackson said the new dam would not only destroy a treasured environmental resource, but also seriously damage local tourism. "We just don't understand how people in the East Bay, who view themselves as being environmentalists, as being green, would want to destroy more miles of the beautiful Mokelumne River so that they can keep using so much water," said Katherine Evatt, an Amador County activist, who along with her husband Pete Bell, has been fighting to save the river for nearly two decades.
But it's not clear whether such complaints will have any effect on the East Bay MUD board, because foothills residents don't live in the agency's service area and so aren't able to vote. Although one agency board member has talked in recent days about moving the new dam downriver so that it won't hurt the scenic stretch near Highway 49 that foothills residents are most concerned about, such a move will still result in significant environmental damage. The reason is that a new dam, even one farther downriver than currently planned, will siphon more than 50 million gallons of water a day from the river, thereby harming the already fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
East Bay MUD's new dam would be massive — more than four hundred feet tall — replacing the old Pardee Dam built in 1929. The public agency plans to construct the new structure about three-quarters of a mile downstream from the old one and increase the volume of Pardee Reservoir by about 76 percent. According to district documents, the newly enlarged lake would hold 370,000 acre-feet of water, compared to the current 209,950. The new reservoir, like the older, smaller one, also would work in concert with the agency's other large reservoir, Camanche, to the west. Plans for the new dam are not related to the current water shortage in California.
Because it would be taller, the new dam also would flood the Mokelumne River upstream from the old Pardee Reservoir. The new big lake would wipe out a section of the river known to locals as Middle Bar Reach, which East Bay MUD finally opened to the public in 2003 after years of wrangling with environmentalists, including Katherine Evatt and Pete Bell. Middle Bar Reach, which is about 1,500 feet above sea level, runs west from the Highway 49 Bridge to the existing Pardee Reservoir. When it was combined with a section of the Mokelumne above Highway 49, it instantly became a destination spot for river lovers. The five-and-a-half-mile run is especially popular with novice kayakers because it includes mostly Class II rapids.
White-water rafting companies also are now anxious to launch their businesses there. James Rodger of OARS, an internationally known white-water rafting company, said the run is perfect for families. In summertime, it takes about two hours to navigate. Last week, Rodger took this reporter for a rafting trip down the Mokelumne, along with Evatt, Bell, and Chris Wright, executive director of the Foothill Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the river. Because of spring run-off, the river was fast and the cool water felt refreshing as our raft splashed through the rapids on a 90-degree day. "It's amazing to me," Bell said, as the inflatable raft floated through a calm stretch, "that they're going to come up here and destroy this river."
In the years since East Bay MUD acquired its Mokelumne River water rights in the 1920s and snatched up thousands of acres of land between the towns of Jackson and Mokelumne Hill through eminent domain, foothills residents have often viewed the agency as colonial occupiers. East Bay MUD, in turn, has acted the part. The agency has erected fences around its property in Amador and Calaveras counties and prohibits almost all public access to its lands. "We have no vote, no representation," explained Steve Wilensky, a member of the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors, who strongly opposes the new dam and whose district includes a significant portion of the river. "And we're ticked off."
Locals are further frustrated because the river has been an integral part of their way of life. "Every kid from around here who knows how to fish, learned to fish on the Mokelumne," Wilensky explained. He and Evatt also noted that a section of lower Middle Bar Reach is sacred to Mi-Wuk natives. "The area that would be flooded is where they get their black willows for basket weaving, which is central to their culture," Wilensky said. "The idea that that would be flooded so that others can water their lawns and wash their cars in summer is just appalling to us."
Foothills residents are also upset that the East Bay MUD board wants to build a new dam in their backyard when it previously chose not to construct one in Contra Costa County. A dam, known as Buckhorn, had been proposed in the 1990s for a canyon near Moraga. But local residents stopped it. "They pulled it completely out of their plan because it was too controversial," Bell noted, shaking his head. "But they're willing to come up here and do it."
An enlarged Pardee Reservoir also would force the removal of the historic Middle Bar Bridge, which was originally built in 1912 and was restored in 2000, and provides an essential escape route during wildfires. Plus, the dam would require a new bridge on Highway 49 to be built over the enlarged lake. In total, the reservoir would flood the river up to nearly a mile above Highway 49, thereby ruining most of the five-and-a-half-mile white-water run.
In an interview, East Bay MUD board member John Coleman, who is the biggest supporter of the new Mokelumne River dam and whose district is in Contra Costa County, attempted to downplay the scenario. He said the dam was still in its earliest planning stages, and may or may not ever be built. "Nothing is set in stone," said Coleman, whose district includes Alamo, Blackhawk, Danville, Diablo, and Lafayette, plus portions of Pleasant Hill, San Ramon, and Walnut Creek. Coleman also is the staunchest opponent of implementing steep penalties for heavy water users. "We're looking at numerous things, and the dam is just one component that could or could not happen. It's about keeping our options open. We might find that we need it. We might find that we won't need it. Maybe we'll find that we'll need a much smaller version."
But opponents of the dam note that despite such comments, the new dam is currently included in East Bay MUD's official draft environmental impact report for its water needs through 2040. The agency is currently accepting comments on the EIR through May 4, and the board is expected to approve the final environmental document, including plans for the dam, sometime this summer.
As of last Friday, the towns of Jackson, Ione, and Sutter Creek had all voted to oppose the new dam, as did the Amador Water Agency. Environmental groups that also officially oppose the dam include the Sierra Club's Bay and Mother Lode chapters and Friends of the River. Late last week, Coleman went on a whirlwind tour of public agencies in the foothills, attempting to persuade them not to oppose the dam. But he was not well received. According to Evatt, the Amador Water Agency refused to revoke its letter of opposition. And Wright said that the Amador County Board of Supervisors, despite hearing a presentation from Coleman, strongly indicated that it plans to vote against the reservoir expansion as currently planned.
But regardless of who is lining up against the dam, its fate will be decided by the East Bay MUD board, which represents voters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties — not the Sierra Foothills.
So far, the only member of the seven-person East Bay MUD board to officially oppose the new dam is Andy Katz. He represents Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito, Kensington, and a portion of North Oakland. Katz said he plans to vote to the remove the dam from the agency's official 2040 water plan when it comes before the board in July or August. "Building a dam is a last resort, no-regrets action," he said. "There are many options that are more desirable than enlarging Pardee."
Katz also supported a plan last year to adopt stiff penalties for heavy water users. The issue came up when the board was grappling with how to deal with the drought. Katz argued that a steep pricing plan — that is, one that raises prices significantly the more water you use — would be fairer for those residents who already practice conservation while placing the appropriate financial burden on water guzzlers. Ultimately, however, the board chose to do the opposite. It approved a plan that protected heavy water users and penalized those who were already conserving.
The district's so-called drought surcharge plan levied extra charges not based on overall current water usage, but on past water use. For example, if you were already conserving and using just 200 gallons of water a day, you were penalized if you used more than 180 gallons during the drought. On the other hand, if you were already wasting lots of water and using 750 gallons a day, you didn't have to pay the surcharge unless you used more than 675 gallons. In other words, you could use nearly four times as much water as your neighbor and not pay the penalty as long you had been wasting water for years.
As absurd as that sounds, the board voted for it. Coleman explained at the time that they feared heavy water users would stop paying their bills if the district went after them. "Basically, they fund the district," he said. "If they don't pay the bills, it can cause a hardship for the district." Not coincidentally, most of the heavy water users live in Contra Costa County, many of them in Coleman's district. Last year, Gary Breaux, the agency's director of finance, said that 20 percent of single-family homes use at least 750 gallons a day during summer, which ranks them as among the district's heaviest water users, and most of them are in Contra Costa County — east of the hills.
Last week, Coleman also argued that stiff penalties would create financial hardships for businesses, forcing many of them to flee the East Bay in what is already a dismal economy. He also argued that large corporations such as Chevron could end up laying people off if they're forced to pay significantly more for water. "It would hurt the economy of the East Bay," he said. "It would have a financial impact on people's livelihoods."
But East Bay MUD has never studied whether increased water penalties would actually result in job losses or businesses leaving town. Moreover, Stuart Flashman, an Oakland attorney working with Sierra Club in opposition to the new Mokelumne River dam, said other water agencies that have adopted steep pricing plans have had huge success. Irvine Ranch Water District in Orange County, for example, adopted a steep pricing structure during the drought of the early 1990s, but, unlike East Bay MUD, kept it in place. Irvine Ranch employs a five-tier system in which the heaviest water users pay nearly ten times per gallon more than the lightest users. Since adopting the plan in 1991, average water use per residential customer has dropped about 13 percent in Irvine, according to a 2007 report from the agency.
A similar four-tier system exists in Tucson, Arizona, where the heaviest users pay nearly six times more per gallon than the lightest. In a 2001 report by Western Resource Advocates, an environmental nonprofit, Tucson had the steepest tiered system among ten Southwestern cities surveyed, and the lowest average customer usage. East Bay MUD, by contrast, has a three-tier system in which the biggest water users pay only about one-and-a-half times more per gallon as the smallest. Katz attempted to get a penalizing fourth tier approved last year, but failed.
Flashman argues that the success of other agencies proves that East Bay MUD should have seriously studied a steep pricing plan, also known as conservation pricing, in its EIR. And he indicated that if the agency approves the dam proposal without such a study, then he'll recommend that Sierra Club file a lawsuit. "They could significantly reduce their need for water by adopting a conservation rate structure," he said. "It's pretty simple. You change the pricing, you change the usage."
At this point, however, it looks like the East Bay MUD board plans to go ahead with the dam proposal and avoid conservation pricing. Even board member Doug Linney, who represents Alameda and San Lorenzo, along with parts of Oakland and San Leandro, and whom environmentalists hope will side with them, would not commit to opposing the dam during an interview last week. He would only say that he would "consider it." He did say, however, that he prefers a steep pricing structure. "I think pricing is the best way to manage your demand," he said. "I'm also troubled that we're asking people in the Sierra Foothills to give up their pristine river so that we can have swimming pools and lawns."
Katz, meanwhile, also questions the assumption by agency engineers that they'll need the extra 50 million gallons of water a day from the Mokelumne because water demand will increase by 2 percent a year over the next thirty years. Katz pointed out that the estimated 2 percent increase far outpaces the population increase estimates from the Association of Bay Area Governments. In 2005, at the height of the East Bay housing boom, the association estimated an annual population increase of just .79 percent, less than half of what East Bay MUD is projecting during the worst housing crisis in decades, Katz said. "There's got to be problems with how the math was calculated," he said of his own agency's estimate.
But even if Linney and Katz vote against the dam, environmentalists may still come up short. Board members Katy Foulkes, Lesa McIntosh, and Bill Patterson often end up voting with Coleman. It's particularly puzzling for Patterson and McIntosh, because he represents almost all of East Oakland and she represents almost all of Richmond. As a result, a steep pricing plan would least affect their constituents because, like Katz' and Linney's constituents, they live west of the hills, in cooler climates, and thus tend to use much less water. Patterson and McIntosh also represent a significant number of low-income residents who tend to live in houses with small lots or in apartments, and so use much less water than the average. Foulkes, meanwhile, represents Moraga, Orinda, Piedmont, and most of the Oakland hills. Foulkes, Patterson, and McIntosh did not return phone calls for this story.
As for seventh board member Frank Mellon, who represents Castro Valley and portions of Hayward, San Leandro, and San Ramon, he sometimes votes with Katz and Linney, but is a wild card. Last year, for example, he voted with Katz and Linney to increase mandatory water rationing from 10 to 15 percent in the 2040 water plan, but they were ultimately overruled by Coleman, Foulkes, McIntosh, and Patterson.
Consequently, some environmentalists believe the only way they'll be able to protect the Mokelumne is to convince the federal government to declare the section of the river above Pardee Reservoir "wild and scenic." If that were to happen, then East Bay MUD would be prohibited from turning it into a lake. Such a declaration requires an act of Congress. Wright, of the Foothill Conservancy, and Evatt and Bell, who sit on the conservancy's board, hope to convince Congressman George Miller of Contra Costa County of their cause. Miller has a strong record on environmental issues and represents part of East Bay MUD's service area. The Foothill contingent also is excited about the candidacy of Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, who is running to replace Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher of Contra Costa County. Garamendi is originally from Mokelumne Hill and is a big supporter of the river.
Late last week, Coleman also floated the idea of moving the new dam downstream, closer to Camanche Reservoir. That way the newly enlarged Pardee might not flood Middle Bar Reach or the section of the Mokelumne above Highway 49. Coleman made the informal proposal as part of his last-minute attempt to change the minds of public officials in the Sierra foothills. Evatt said such a plan, if adopted, would be persuasive. "If they don't inundate the river, it would eliminate local opposition," she said.
But she noted that there is no indication that this new proposal will go anywhere. East Bay MUD's official plans still have the new dam flooding the Mokelumne above the existing reservoir. Moreover, some environmentalists point out that wherever the new dam is built, it will take up to 50 million gallons of water a day from the Mokelumne, thereby further starving the Delta of much-needed water.
The Delta has been under assault for years, and is now near collapse. This year, California will not have a local salmon season for the second year in a row, in part because of water diversions from the Delta to agriculture and urban water uses. "The Delta is dying a death from a thousand cuts, and this would be another one," said John Beuttler, conservation director for the California Sport Fishing Protection Alliance. "It's like we have a patient in triage, and they want to take away more oxygen."
David "Chicken" Nesmith of the Environmental Water Caucus and the Sierra Club Bay Chapter water committee called Coleman's informal proposal to move the dam "a nonstarter" and "another insult" to the Delta. "Quite frankly," he said, "East Bay MUD should be ashamed of itself for taking more water from the Delta when they know full well the disaster that is already happening there."