The Foothill Conservancy has worked for restoration and protection of the Mokelumne River and its watershed since 1989. On November 3, 2016, that work took a great blast forward with the long-awaited removal of East Panther Creek Dam in Amador County east of Pioneer, as Copperopolis contractor California Drilling and Blasting dynamited the main body of the dam.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Foothill Conservancy Vice-President Pete Bell, whose efforts led to the dam removal. “We’re really happy to see this project finally come to pass.”
Originally built by PG&E in the 1930s, the East Panther Creek Diversion Dam spanned a tributary stream to the North Fork of the Mokelumne River, diverting water to PG&E’s Mokelumne River hydroelectric project. The dam had not been in use since it was silted up in the 1997 floods.
In 1999, as PG&E was negotiating terms for a new federal hydroelectric license with state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations, the utility agreed to Foothill Conservancy’s request to breach not only East Panther Creek Dam, but to also breach nearby West Panther Creek Dam and remove the Beaver Creek Diversion. Ceasing diversions from the smaller creeks had very little effect on PG&E’s hydropower production, but a proportionally large benefit for streams and fish. Breaching the two larger dams reconnected fish populations that had been separated for decades, benefited local rainbow trout genetic diversity, and moved sediment downstream to the North Fork Mokelumne River, whose natural sediment load has been reduced by Salt Springs Dam upstream.
In 2003, PG&E breached East Panther Creek Dam, completely removed West Panther Creek Dam and dismantled the diversion works on Beaver Creek. But the removal of East Panther wasn’t accomplished until this year, when funding became available from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The drilling and blasting of the dam were followed by debris removal carried out by Campbell Construction of Sutter Creek.
“We were really happy to hire local contractors to do this work,” said Foothill Conservancy Watershed Conservation Associate Reuben Childress. “Since we’re a community-based conservation organization, we prefer to work in ways that benefit our local communities and economy. It was great to have people who know and fish this creek play such a key role in the restoration project.”
Removing part of the dam’s old diversion structure proved to be a larger challenge than expected, so a portion of the dam adjacent to the creek bank was not removed. The Conservancy plans to complete the project next fall when the creek again returns to its lowest seasonal flow.
The dam removal agreements were part of a larger, national award-winning settlement agreement for the PG&E Mokelumne River Project. Parties to the agreement and participants in its ongoing Ecological Resources Committee include not only PG&E and Foothill Conservancy, but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Division of Boating and Waterways, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Natural Heritage Institute, American Whitewater and Friends of the River.
Childress recently completed a short film on the history and process of the dam removal. While the Conservancy planned to show the film in Sutter Creek on December 2 at the special screening of river restoration film, DamNation, technical difficulties intervened. Now everyone can see the video on YouTube.