On Jan. 26, the California Natural Resources Agency released its draft Mokelumne River Wild and Scenic River Study Report, and several environmental and recreational advocacy groups have already publicly praised its findings.
The agency recommended granting Wild and Scenic status to 37 miles of the North Fork and main stem of the Mokelumne River that it studied.
The 1972 California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act preserves designated rivers or river segments that are “free-flowing and possess extraordinary wildlife, fishery, scenic or recreational values.”
The Friends of the River, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, American Whitewater and the Foothill Conservancy issued a joint press release on Jan. 31.
“As someone who has spent a great deal of time in the Mokelumne River Canyon and on the river, I’m not surprised the state found the river to have ‘extraordinary scenic values,’” said Foothill Conservancy President Katherine Evatt. “It’s an incredibly beautiful place that brings joy, peace and inspiration to local residents and visitors alike.”
“We’re glad to see that the study recommends adding all 37 miles of the Mokelumne listed in Assembly Bill 142 to the California Wild and Scenic River system,” said Friends of the River Wild Rivers consultant Steve Evans. “The study recognizes the Mokelumne’s extraordinary scenic and recreational resources and finds that designating the river is fully consistent with the intent of the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Water agencies have questioned that in the past and demanded that the state do a study. Now we have the draft study, and it clearly demonstrates that the Mokelumne is worth protecting for generations to come.”
State Assemblyman Frank Bigelow sponsored AB 142, a 2015 bill requiring the agency to conduct the study. Bigelow did not respond before press time to a request for comment concerning his views on the agency’s recommendations.
“Paddlers are pleased to see the study acknowledge what we’ve known for decades,” said Theresa Simsiman, California stewardship director of American Whitewater. “The Mokelumne River is a unique whitewater resource that boaters of all skill levels can enjoy.”
GEI Consultants completed the study. The California Research Bureau, a branch of the California State Library, also contributed a wild and scenic river-related water rights and diversion report to inform the study.
The study also recommended including “special provisions to protect existing water rights application 5647X03 and future local water development projects designed to avoid adverse effects on the free-flowing condition and natural character of designated segments, as well as on the extraordinary scenic and recreational values for which the segments would be designated.”
The water rights to which the study referred is a pending 2004 application by the Amador Water Agency for 2,450 acre feet per year from the Bear River and North Fork of the Mokelumne River.
The draft study is now available for public review and comment at resources.ca.gov/programs-projects/wildandscenic. Comments are due by Feb. 28. The agency holds a public meeting to discuss the study and hear public comments at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15, at the Mokelumne Hill Town Hall, 8283 Main St., Mokelumne Hill.
According to the study report, a wild and scenic designation “would ban onstream dams and reservoirs in the effected reaches of the river, as well as the diversion of water for use outside Amador and Calaveras counties.”
The report also explains that after such a designation, “current uses of the Mokelumne River would continue. (The) designation will not affect existing water rights, hydropower generation, hunting and fishing, land use, grazing and agriculture. It will have limited potential effects on timber management or logging on private lands and no effect on public land timber management. (The) designation does not give the state additional condemnation power and no land along a state-designated (river) has ever been subject to eminent domain.”
In February 2014, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to support a Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne.
“The next step will then be working with the state Legislature,” said then-District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway.
“There are a lot of good arguments for protecting the river,” said then-District 2 Supervisor Chris Wright. “Economic arguments, the community arguments, the environment. But really, when it comes down to it, it’s very personal for me. I grew up on that river.”
District 4 Rep. Tom McClintock said at a San Andreas town hall in March of 2014 that he would not back any more Wild and Scenic River designations at the federal level.
“The public will lose access to public land,” he said at the time. “There is never going to be a dam now. This is going to limit the future generations’ water needs. The Wild and Scenic (designation), I don’t think, adds a bit to environmental protection. It diminishes, because you can’t do the kind of foresting necessary for fire prevention. I think it is a very, very bad idea.”
McClintock’s office is expected to comment during a tele-town hall on Tuesday, Feb. 13.
Former Democratic state Sen. Loni Hancock reintroduced an amended bill seeking Wild and Scenic designation for the Mokelumne in April 2014 with Senate Bill 1199.
“The Mokelumne River is an extremely important state resource that provides high-quality drinking water to 1.4 million East Bay water users,” she said at the time, noting customers of the East Bay Municipal Utility District.
Directors with the Calaveras County Water District sent a letter of opposition and voted to oppose the Wild and Scenic designation that same month. The Amador County Board of Supervisors, Amador Water Agency and Jackson Valley Irrigation District all opposed it as well.
The bill won approval in the California Senate in May of 2014, despite significant local opposition.
By the end of July 2014, then-District 1 Calaveras County Supervisor Cliff Edson had changed his mind.
“I just think there is a better way,” Edson said. “It will divide people. If we start putting restrictions on us, it will not do us any favors.”
The rest of the board remained supportive of the effort.
“This is a strategy that protects our water rights, that protects our river from outside interests that have a lot more power than we do,” said Wright.
“If you want to make Wall Street corporations rich off of our water, have at it,” said then-District 5 Supervisor Darren Spellman.
Then-Amador County Supervisor John Plasse referred to Hancock at the time as “an environmental ideologue from Berkeley.”
The Assembly Committee on Natural Resources approved Hancock’s bill in June 2014, and then passed it on to Appropriations. By November 2014, the Assembly Appropriations Committee had failed to take any further action on the bill and it died.
More than 75 percent of those responding to a 2015 Enterprise online poll chose an option that read: “The entire region benefits if we preserve the Moke for rafting and fishing. Let’s make it wild and scenic!” Just under 12 percent chose, “Wild and Scenic is just a way to provide a playground for kayakers. We don’t need it,” and 10 percent chose, “I love the river, but I think human needs come first, even if we drink the river dry.”
In March 2015, the Calaveras County Water District Board voted to supported AB 142.
According to Joel Metzger, District Manager of External Affairs, Conservation and Grants, the district "has invested significant funds, time and energy over the past year to study water supplies and current and future needs on the Mokelumne River system in Calaveras County (working in partnership with the Calaveras Public Utility District). The study we conducted was submitted to the California Natural Resources Agency and used to inform its draft report. We are currently drafting comments that will be submitted to the Natural Resources Agency. It is our hope that the final report will include the necessary language to protect the District’s ability to make full use of its water rights now and in the future."
The Enterprise will post another poll to measure public reaction to the most recent recommendations, and expects to provide comments from residents as well as local, state and federal politicians in subsequent issues.