Mokelumne River gets preserved

The Mokelumne River between Amador and Calaveras counties has been designated Wild and Scenic by the state.

After years of negotiation and debate between politicians, water agencies, business leaders and conservationists, a 37-mile-long stretch of the Mokelumne River was officially added to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System on June 27, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 845, following the passage of legislation by the state Assembly and Senate on June 14.

The protected segment of the river runs along the border between Amador and Calaveras counties, spanning from just below Salt Springs Dam to just upstream of Pardee Reservoir near Jackson.

“The Mokelumne was found eligible and suitable for state Wild and Scenic designation because of its extraordinary scenic and recreational values,” stated a press release issued by the Calaveras County Water District on June 27.

The Mokelumne River is now one of 12 California rivers protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers System.  According to government websites, roughly 1 percent of the state’s total 189,454 miles of river is designated to the system.

According to Foothill Conservancy President Katherine Evatt, the main purpose of the Wild and Scenic designation of the Mokelumne River is to prevent the construction and expansion of dams that would cause further impoundment of water within the designated segments, protecting those segments as “free-flowing in perpetuity.”

Due to the river’s necessity as a water source for residents and agriculture in foothill counties, the Central Valley and residents of the East Bay, and a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. hydroelectric project, many agencies and stakeholders voiced concerns during the drafting process that the language of the bill may infringe upon water rights. However, with the adoption of recommendations by the California National Resources Agency (CNRA) in its final study to include five special provisions protecting water rights, “water and power uses and operations will not be affected by the designation,” the press release states.

Calaveras County Water District Manager of External Affairs, Conservation and Grants Joel Metzger added on Monday that firefighting strategies along the river will also remain unaffected.

The inclusion of the special provisions in the final study has been a collaborative effort by a “coalition of interests,” including conservationists, fish and recreation organizations, business and tourism organizations, foothill and East Bay water agencies and Amador and Calaveras counties.

Metzger says that the achievement of such a unanimous agreement is “almost unprecedented.”

“Securing our water rights and the path to new water rights was our overall goal, and I think we achieved that very robustly,” said Metzger.

Although the legislation will not allow the building of new dams within the protected segments, Metzger says that local water districts conducted a long-term supply needs study that determined there was no need to pursue future dams within that area.

“This legislation is a true ‘win-win.’ It protects the Mokelumne River water supply that Amador County residents depend on for nearly all of our public water,” stated Amador Water Agency Board President Art Toy in the press release. “At the same time, it protects the river environment and recreation.”

“This is a landmark achievement,” said Scott Ratterman, the CCWD board president. “We are proud to have reached a consensus with all stakeholders that protects local water rights and the river for future generations.”

Other agencies, including the East Bay Municipal Utility District, Friends of the River and the Foothill Conservancy, have also issued statements of enthusiastic approval.

“This designation is a historic, once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said East Bay Municipal Utility District Board President Lesa McIntosh. “The Mokelumne is a treasured resource that provides precious water supplies for local communities and the East Bay. With these new protections, the river will continue its vital role in sustaining our communities and be a jewel that present and future generations can enjoy.”

“I can’t begin to tell you how happy we are,” Evatt said. “It’s a tremendous day for our community. People really love the Mokelumne. We have worked for decades to ensure that this beautiful river is protected for generations to come, and finally, the upper Mokelumne is a California Wild and Scenic River.”

However, local water agencies and stakeholders on the river have not always supported the designation. Prior to the release of the final study, there were concerns surrounding the language of the bill and its impact on water rights.

“Our position has been that if (the bill) doesn’t have the protection for water supply, we’re going to oppose it,” Amador Water Agency General Manager Gene Mancedo stated in an April interview.

In 2014, an earlier effort to designate the same portions of the river as Wild and Scenic was proposed in Senate Bill 1199, introduced by East Bay Sen. Loni Hancock. That bill was supported by the Foothill Conservancy and the Friends of the River, but was not supported by local water agencies and other stakeholders due to concerns about possible infringement of water rights. Hancock’s bill ultimately died after being held in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

In 2015, Assemblyman Frank Bigelow and state Sen. Tom Berryhill co-authored AB 142, which directed the CNRA to evaluate the suitability of Mokelumne River for inclusion into the Wild and Scenic System.

“After years of urban Assembly members introducing broad Wild and Scenic designations to the Mokelumne River, I introduced AB 142 allowing the locals who live and depend on the Mokelumne River to have a seat at the table,” stated Bigelow in April, in response to the release of the final study.

Bigelow has not yet issued a statement regarding the official designation.

Despite widespread approval of the final legislation, it is unclear whether or not the water rights protections included in the final legislation will sway those who have remained steadfast in their opposition of the designation.

“The Calaveras County Republican Party is opposed to the designation of the Wild and Scenic River and opposed AB 142 in its final amendments,” said Vicki Reinke, president of the CCRP, in April. “The CCRP has not taken a specific position on the current Wild and Scenic designation of Mokelumne River with special provisions.”

The CCRP has not released a position regarding the final legislation at this time.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated erroneously that the Mokelumne River was added to the federal Wild and Scenic System. It has been added to the state system, which is not under federal jurisdiction.

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Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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