Wild & Scenic Mokelumne Update

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Water agencies release wildly speculative water demand studies, call for new or larger dams
Calaveras County Water District urged customers to use more water after the drought
In an attempt to influence the Mokelumne Wild and Scenic state study outcome, water agencies in Amador and Calaveras counties developed wildly speculative water demand studies earlier this year. We wrote about Amador Water Agency’s study in the last e-Focus.

Both studies project population growth in our local counties at far higher rates than county planners’ and state demographers’ forecasts. They also rely on outdated methods of water demand forecasting, forecast much farther into the future than planners find prudent, and fail to take into account water use trends and improvements in water use efficiency and conservation.

Poor water planning: our local tradition

This is nothing new for our region, sad to say. Over the past three decades, local water demand projections have been proven wrong time and time again.

For example, back in 2007, then-AWA General Manager Jim Abercrombie was telling local media that Amador County would need new sources of water by 2020. Yet the 2015 Amador Water Agency Urban Water Management Plan, updated in July 2016, shows projected water supply surpluses through 2040 -- even after several consecutive years of drought.

The history of poor water planning goes back even farther in Amador. In 1979, the County of Amador was seeking to build the Devil’s Nose Cross-County Water and Power Project on the North Fork of the Mokelumne River upstream of Tiger Creek Powerhouse. A Lodi News-Sentinel article from that year reported on the U.S. Forest Service’s Wild and Scenic study hearing for the Mokelumne. The article referred to then-head of the Amador County Department of Water Resources Rod Schuler in stating:

“Schuler termed the Devil’s Nose Project as essential for meeting the county’s projected water needs. Without it, he said, the county would be short 30,000 acre feet of water by 2020, based on projected growth of 3.4 percent per year to 75,000 people. In 1980, the county had about 19,000 residents.”

Today, thanks to the efforts of our organization and others, we have no Devil’s Nose Dam, saving 9.5 miles of beautiful, remote river canyon. The county’s total population, including inmates at Mule Creek Prison, is about 38,000 residents – not 75,000 – and as noted above, Amador’s water agency reported to the state that it has surplus water available beyond 2040.

Studies likely to lead to dam proposals

Unfortunately, just as past projections have been used to push harmful and unneeded projects, local water agencies will doubtless use their questionable studies to call for and justify larger and new dams on Mokelumne tributaries.

For example, the Amador Water Agency remains wedded to the concept of raising Lower Bear River Dam even though no feasibility study has ever shown that it’s technically possible -- never mind environmentally benign or socially acceptable. The agency has never been able to afford a full feasibility study for the project, calling into question its ability to finance a controversial, multi-million-dollar dam raise.

The Calaveras agencies’ study includes the construction of a dam on the Middle Fork of the Mokelumne and Forest Creek among its future water supply options. That dam has been rejected repeatedly since it was first proposed in the 1950s, and is no more practical today than it was in the past.

Agencies largely rejected recommendations

Unfortunately, the agencies rejected our recommendations on how to create more-realistic studies. Here’s one example: In their study, the Calaveras County Water District and Calaveras Public Utility District relied on past water use to project future demand.We pointed out that the respected water experts at the Pacific Institute and the California Building Industry Association (the political arm for developers and builders in the state) show far lower rates of residential water use for newer or upgraded homes, which use efficient fixtures, comply with new state conservation requirements, and use water-saving appliances. But the Calaveras agencies rejected our comments as having no basis in fact.

Wild and Scenic bill requires analysis of only feasible projects

Fortunately, Assembly Bill 142 requires that the state Wild and Scenic study consider only “feasible projects to meet foreseeable demands.” So, while we are concerned that the water studies will be used to push for unnecessary dam projects, we hope they will not overly influence the Wild and Scenic study outcome. The consultants carrying out the Wild and Scenic study have no legal obligation to accept speculative studies as gospel truth.

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