House-size boulder in North Fork Mokelumne River
As you likely know, on June 27, 2018, 37 miles of our beloved North Fork and main Mokelumne River were added to the California Wild and Scenic Rivers System through the passage of the Natural Resources Budget Trailer Bill, Senate Bill 854.
With little fanfare and perhaps a few cries of outrage, our beautiful Mokelumne was protected from new and larger dams and diversions for generations to come, joining 14 other California streams on the list of official California Wild and Scenic Rivers.
Nothing changed on the river that day. And that’s the whole idea. With Wild and Scenic designation, we get to keep the river as it is and work for its restoration.
Now PG&E will keep generating power, water agencies will continue to provide water, Roaring Camp will keep operating, landowners and river visitors will continue to use the land along the river’s banks and enjoy the river itself. Our days of fighting off bad dams on the North Fork and main Mokelumne are officially done. And we can rest assured that this special river we have shared with our children and grandchildren today will be here for their grandchildren tomorrow.
We achieved this momentous goal thanks to the support of good people like you, a lot of hard work by Conservancy volunteers and staff, generous grants, a strong partnership with the O.A.R.S. Family of Companies of Angels Camp, the help of our river conservation organizations including Friends of the River, American Whitewater, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and others -- and new this year -- the collaboration and support of local water agencies.
This article is a look back at our history of working for the Mokelumne River and the many efforts that led to this summer’s positive outcome.
Fighting the bad, promoting the good
Those of you who’ve followed the saga of the Mokelumne since 1979 know that this was a long time coming. Since before we were formally an organization, Foothill Conservancy members and supporters have advocated for permanent protection of the Mokelumne.
We began that effort in 1979 by opposing Amador County’s proposed Devil’s Nose Cross-County Water and Power Project, which proposed to build a high dam on the North Fork just upstream of Tiger Creek Powerhouse. The dam would have flooded more than nine miles of wild river canyon east of Pioneer and south of Highway 88. With our partners in river conservation, we helped make sure that dam was never built.
Since then, we have fought off two versions of a dam at Middle Bar, downstream of Highway 49. Both dams would have flooded the lovely Middle Bar reach of the Mokelumne. The high version would have flooded the entire Electra Run, too, inundating the river canyon upstream nearly to Roaring Camp. That would have eliminated the section of the Mokelumne that is most enjoyed by local families and visitors.
We fought the raising of Pardee Dam, which would have similarly flooded the Middle Bar reach. And in 2010, we and river partners successfully sued to keep the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) from building a taller, new Pardee Dam that would have inundated the historic Middle Bar Bridge, flooded the Middle Bar reach, and drowned the lower end of the popular Electra Run.
As we fought off river-destroying projects, we also worked for river restoration and access. We helped negotiate an award-winning settlement agreement for PG&E’s Mokelumne hydropower license, which led to the removal or dismantling of three small dams on tributary streams, improved river flows, and built new river recreation sites. We secured public access to the Middle Bar reach of the Mokelumne and helped ensure a public access facility was built at Highway 49.
We also worked to include river-benefitting projects in regional water plans, help guide water agencies toward alternatives to big dams, supported watershed restoration projects, and helped our local water agencies better understand the importance of the river for people, fish, and wildlife.
And with help from O.A.R.S., we took hundreds of people rafting on the river so they could enjoy its beauty firsthand.
Working for permanent protection at the federal level
Fighting off bad projects and promoting river access and improvements was important work. But since our formation, we have also sought to permanently protect the Mokelumne from new dams and harmful diversions.
First, we supported the U.S. Forest Service’s finding that about 17 miles of the North Fork Mokelumne below Salt Springs Reservoir was eligible for National Wild and Scenic River designation because of its outstanding cultural resource values. We were able to get those 17 miles of river included in Senator Barbara Boxer’s California Wild Heritage Act of 2002. Unfortunately, the full version of that bill never moved ahead, and the Mokelumne was not included in the smaller measures later passed by the Congress.
In 2007, the Bureau of Land Management found 20.2 miles of the Mokelumne’s North Fork and main stem eligible and suitable for National Wild and Scenic designation because of the river’s high water quality, scenic beauty, cultural resources, and recreational values. That finding was widely cheered by the river conservation and recreation community. However, their recommendation complicated the Wild and Scenic effort and introduced new controversy since those additional river miles included a great deal of private land.
As the years went by and our local Congressmen were not friendly to federal designation, we focused on building local and regional support for the designation among individuals, businesses and elected officials, and on raising awareness of the river in our region and the East Bay. Our hard-working staff and volunteers secured support from more than 12,000 individuals representing a broad spectrum of people whose common ground was their love of the Mokelumne. The 2009 EBMUD proposal to expand Pardee Reservoir was an especially important time for us to gain support, as people realized that the river they often took for granted remained at risk.
In 2008 and 2010, we made trips to Washington to lobby federal officials to support National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne. Our Congressman at the time, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Elk Grove), was at least open to discussing designation, and Calaveras native Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), who then represented parts of the East Bay, was openly supportive.
However, those efforts were thwarted, in large part, by the opposition of the Amador County Board of Supervisors and EBMUD. The Amador supervisors were vehemently opposed, while EBMUD supported river protection only upstream of Highway 49 in order to allow the utility to flood the Middle Bar reach. Foothill water agencies also remained opposed to designation. However, by 2009, we had secured support from the cities of Richmond and Berkeley as well as the California Democratic Party.
The shift to state designation
After we successfully stopped the Pardee expansion and EBMUD dropped that proposal from its long-term water plan, we met with our longtime Mokelumne partners to regroup. At that time, we began to explore whether pursuing California Wild and Scenic River designation might be a better path for protecting the Mokelumne. Congressman Tom McClintock had become our Congressman by then, which dashed our hopes of having a local bill sponsor in Washington.
We hoped that the shift to state designation might help us overcome local political and agency opposition, too. State designation is less restrictive than federal designation and doesn’t involve federal land management agencies. Unfortunately, Wild and Scenic opponents, including Rep. McClintock’s staff and some local elected officials, continued to spread misleading and often false information about what Wild and Scenic designation would and wouldn’t do. That resulted in a fair amount of confusion about the differences between state and federal river law, and led some who had opposed the Pardee expansion to oppose state Wild and Scenic designation.
In 2012, former Foothill Conservancy Executive Director Chris Wright was elected to the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors. In 2014, he successfully secured that board’s support for state Wild and Scenic designation. In April of that year, state Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) introduced Senate Bill 1199, which proposed to add the North Fork and main Mokelumne from just downstream of Salt Springs Reservoir to just upstream of Pardee Reservoir to the California Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The bill was sponsored by our organization and Friends of the River.
SB 1199 had broad support from conservation, fish and recreation groups as well as many local individuals, businesses, elected officials, tribes, and the City of Oakland. It was opposed by the Amador County Board of Supervisors, local and regional water agencies, the Amador County Business Council, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, and our foothill representatives in the state legislature. The bill was misrepresented in the Amador Ledger-Dispatch for much of the legislative term, and we and its author, Sen. Hancock, were demonized by local politicians.
Nonetheless, the state Senate passed the bill. We worked hard as the bill proceeded in the Assembly to develop amendments that would satisfy local water agency concerns, to no avail. We were successful in negotiating with Dennis Rodman of Roaring Camp to develop language that would address his family’s concerns. And late in the process, we finally secured support from the EBMUD board.
But in August 2014, the bill was held and effectively killed in the state Assembly Appropriations Committee, whose vice-chair was our Assemblyman, Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neals). Bigelow and other Wild and Scenic opponents knew that if the bill went to the Assembly floor, it would likely pass.
The defeat was devastating. River advocates were angry, Wild and Scenic opponents jubilant.
Still, a few months later, we tried to initiate discussions with Amador Water Agency to see if we could resolve our conflicts over the river. Those talks never got off the ground. We then convinced the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to use its contract with the Center for Collaborative Policy at California State University, Sacramento, to see if it could convene and facilitate a multi-party collaborative effort focused on conflict resolution. The Center’s initial analysis concluded that such a collaboration was unlikely to succeed.
By the time the Center reached that conclusion in early 2015, Assemblyman Bigelow had introduced Assembly Bill 142, which called for the state to study whether the Mokelumne was suitable for Wild and Scenic designation. We and our river partners initially opposed the bill, and we had the votes to kill it. But much to our surprise, Assemblyman Bigelow accepted amendments proposed by river advocates and EBMUD. The bill was further amended as it moved through the process, and with broad support, it breezed through both houses of the Legislature and was signed into law in October 2015.
AB 142 required the California Natural Resources Agency to study the suitability of the Mokelumne for inclusion in California’s protected rivers system and to complete a report by the end of 2016. It also placed wild-and-scenic comparable protections on the 37 miles of river to be studied and laid out study requirements. The protections were to last through the Legislature’s implementation of the study recommendations or the end of 2021, whichever came first.
Read more about the state designation history ...
Study led to reconciliation and protection
In 2016 the Resources Agency began the study by assigning a bright, up-and-coming graduate of Amador High School and Harvard University, Joseph “Joey” Wall, to manage the effort. After a couple of years working in the legislature, we were incredibly happy to have someone involved who knew where the Mokelumne was -- never mind someone who grew up nearby. It was also obvious that Wall was capable, fair, earnest, and responsible.
As is often the case, the Mokelumne study contract took a long time to put in place. Finally, in 2017 the state engaged GEI Consultants of Rancho Cordova, whose principal study consultant, Phil Dunn, is the only living author of a California wild and scenic river study. GEI collected information about the river, local water supplies and needs, and more from state and federal agencies, local agencies, nonprofit groups including ours, PG&E, EBMUD and other sources (the Mokelumne is a very well-studied river).
In January of this year, the Resources Agency released the draft study for the Mokelumne, which recommended including 37 miles of the river in the California Wild and Scenic River system because of their extraordinary scenic and recreational values (the state system recognizes only four “extraordinary values:” fish, wildlife, scenery, and recreation). After the release of the draft, more than 1,700 people submitted comments, the vast majority of which were in favor of designation.
The draft study also recommended “special provision” language to help clarify how the designation would affect the operation of PG&E’s hydroelectric project, water rights, future water rights applications, and more. Those special provisions became the focus of negotiations among the Amador Water Agency, Jackson Valley Irrigation District, Calaveras County Water District, Calaveras Public Utility District, EBMUD, Friends of the River, the California Natural Resources Agency, and Foothill Conservancy. After a great deal of back-and-forth, we developed language we could all support that would protect the river while providing assurances to the water agencies, PG&E, and Roaring Camp. The latter was of special importance to Amador County officials.
That agreement, in turn, led to local water agency support for the final AB 142 study recommendations, which were issued on April 18. Soon after, local water agencies led the way in securing similar support from the Amador and Calaveras County boards of supervisors and the Jackson City Council. Not one local public official voted to oppose the recommended language, although two abstained from voting.
Then the water agency lobbyists got busy in Sacramento. Since it was relatively late in the legislative session, there were few options for moving legislation forward this year. But thanks to the skill and connections of seasoned Capitol hands, the negotiated Mokelumne Wild and Scenic designation language was included in Senate Bill 854, the lengthy Natural Resources Budget Trailer Bill.
SB 854 was passed by both houses of the Legislature on the evening of June 14 and signed into law by Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown on June 27. Since the bill was an “urgency measure” -- meaning its provisions took place immediately -- the Mokelumne was designated Wild and Scenic that same day.
This is the first time a river has been designated Wild and Scenic in a budget trailer bill. Broad support for the designation combined with the lack of conflict and opposition were key.
Looking back, looking ahead
The work to save the Mokelumne was at times exceptionally challenging. We were never sure we could stop a dam. We were never sure we could get a better hydro license. We had to learn about state and federal wild and scenic law, hydroelectric relicensing, water rights and local water systems, state water rights law, public access law, and water use best practices. We had to muster grassroots support, public officials’ support, East Bay support, and keep moving forward even after crushing defeat.
But in the end, we did it. We persisted, we never gave up, and we have protected our river for generations to come.
We imagine that in 10 years or so, no one will remember what all the fuss was about. And 10, 20, 30 and 50 years from now, our Mokelumne will still be a sparkling gem of nature for all to enjoy, supporting fish, wildlife, and people on its long path to the sea.
Thanks to all of you for your support, your donations, and your faith that this outcome was possible. It is your victory to savor.
Together, we have saved the Moke for good!
Mokelumne Wild and Scenic All-Stars
So many people had a hand in the Mokelumne Wild and Scenic designation that we can’t thank them all here. But we’d like to give special recognition to the following Foothill Conservancy staff, supporters, friends, funders, and partners whose efforts and support over the years made it possible to permanently protect our local river.
- Conservancy Executive Director Amanda Nelson and former EDs Chris Wright and Cecily Smith.
- Conservancy Administrative Assistants/Outreach Coordinators Randy Berg and Carolyn Schooley, and former Watershed Conservation Associate Reuben Childress.
- Local government agencies: Amador Water Agency, Jackson Valley Irrigation District, Calaveras County Water District, Calaveras Public Utility District, East Bay Municipal Utility District, Amador County Board of Supervisors, Calaveras County Board of Supervisors, Jackson City Council.
- Major business sponsors and supporters: The O.A.R.S. Family of Companies, Terre Rouge and Easton Wines, Patagonia, New Belgium Brewing, Lagunitas Brewing Company, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Karmère Vineyards & Winery, Calaveras Visitors’ Bureau, David Design.
- Conservation partners: Friends of the River (Steve Evans, Wild Rivers Consultant), American Whitewater (Theresa Simsiman, California coordinator), Calaveras Planning Coalition (Tom Infusino, coordinator), California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (Chris Shutes and Bill Jennings).
- Foundations: Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, Clif Bar Family Foundation, Environment Now.