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."