Wild & Scenic Mokelumne Update

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AWA Rejects Staff Advice on Wild and Scenic designation
Amador Ledger Dispatch
4/14/08
AWA defers position on wild and scenic designation for Mokelumne
By Jerry Budrick (jbudrick@ledger-dispatch.com)

The Mokelumne River is many things to many people. To 1.3 million residents in East Bay cities, it is the source of their drinking water. To Pacific Gas and Electric Co., it is a source of electrical power for generators at Electra Power Station. To the residents of Amador County, it is life itself.

By the terms of a contract signed in the 1920s, Amador County gets the first 15,000 acre feet of Mokelumne River water every year, with the rest, estimated to be 360,000 acre feet in a normal year, continuing downstream to slake the East Bay. Calaveras County has rights to 20,000 acre feet, which they presently are not using.

The Amador Water Agency, in its own words, "has a significant interest in protecting the Mokelumne River Watershed ... to ensure the main water supply for Amador County is protected." Members of the Foothill Conservancy have been working for many years on protecting the river in their own way, which sometimes differs radically from protection as seen through the eyes of the water agency. Inclusion in the Wild and Scenic Rivers program would add the Mokelumne to a growing list of famous rivers, such as the Rogue in Oregon, the Snake in Idaho and neighboring California rivers, including stretches of the American, Merced and Tuolumne.

Wild and scenic river status is viewed by the conservancy as the ultimate protection, while the AWA believes it to be "very restrictive and could preclude the agency from meeting existing and future water supply needs."

At their Thursday morning meeting, AWA directors were called upon to decide whether "to officially oppose the Foothill Conservancy's bill proposing the wild and scenic designation of the Mokelumne River unless amended to address future water supply concerns."

The word "oppose" became the focal point of the discussion.

Pete Bell, representing the conservancy, spoke to the agency directors at length. Bell named the various agencies and organizations that would need to be parties to any discussion of the wording of a finished proposal to be sent to Congress, including PG&E, East Bay Municipal Utilities District, the counties of Amador and Calaveras, the water agency, conservancy and private property owners along the river.

AWA General Manager Jim Abercrombie pointed out three possible adverse impacts to agency plans from wild and scenic designation: AWA's plan to raise the dam at Lower Bear River Reservoir; EBMUD's nascent plan to raise the level of Pardee Dam; and alternative diversion in case of a catastrophic failure in the existing AWA system.

"We need to be careful to prevent overly-strict regulations," Abercrombie told the directors.

Bell freely admitted the existence of a myriad of large and small details still to be discussed and decided upon. He made it clear that the conservancy's plan left gaps where pumps or diversion could be placed. Abercrombie hinted at the possibility that some more profound level of cooperation could be achieved, with the agency supporting wild and scenic designation if the conservancy increased its level of acceptance of the three perceived needs of the agency.

Bell exhorted the board to consider the options. "Our problem comes with opposing," he said. "Other options are available."

The board could choose to take no action, support if amended, or make some other statement. "I really support the wild and scenic, but my job on this board is to protect the water supply," said AWA Director Terry Moore.

After Bell answered that he planned to meet with everyone before a bill is introduced, AWA attorney Steve Kronick suggested that the board defer action on the issue.

"The board seems to be leaning toward not opposing," acknowledged Chairman John Swift, and the decision to defer was made official.

Also on the agenda were two matters related to the expansion of Lower Bear River Reservoir.

The agency project aimed at raising the level of the dam at Lower Bear has been discussed since the 1980s, though reaching full project status only last year. At this stage, more engineering needs to be done. AWA staff requested that the board of directors authorize continued engineering study. Staff also requested board approval of agency entry into a Non-disclosure and Use of Information agreement with PG&E.

Following brief discussion about secrecy, the Brown Act and disclosure rules, the board approved both the engineering and signing of the pact with PG&E.

"We want to make this as open to the public as possible," Abercrombie said. "We will do our best to err on the side of disclosure."

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