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Commercial rafters set sights on the Moke

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Posted: Friday, July 20, 2012 9:05 am | Updated: 9:42 am, Tue Jul 24, 2012.

After years of lobbying for approval of commercial rafting on the Electra-Middle Bar run of the Mokelumne River by outdoor enthusiasts and rafting companies, the dream may come true once a feasibility study is complete.

The Bureau of Land Management will hold a public meeting at 7 p.m., Tuesday, July 31, in the Jackson City Council Chambers, 33 Broadway St. Public comments are encouraged, and BLM representatives will be available to answer questions.

“We’re there to solicit comments from the public,” said Jeff Horn, lead outdoor recreation planner for the Bureau of Land Management Mother Lode Field Office. “We’re interested in what people think.”

Last December, a memorandum of understanding was signed between BLM, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the East Bay Municipal Utility District, all stakeholders on this section of river. The memorandum outlined an agreement for a three-year pilot program allowing limited commercial boating.

Why commercial boating wasn’t allowed years ago, boils down to concerns EBMUD had about water quality, according to Horn. As an example of how long it’s taken to get the district on board with the idea, he said the first meeting he had with EBMUD regarding commercial rafting was in 1988.

“Years ago we looked at doing it, and EBMUD was pretty much dead set against it. One of the issues they have relates to swimming and bodily contact with the upper part of the reservoir,” Horn said. “EBMUD didn’t want anything to do with that.”

For many years, Horn said EBMUD would threaten private parties rafting or kayaking the river when they took out at Middle Bar Bridge, Horn continued.

“We cooled our jets for a while and then there was a ground swelling of people who wanted to do it and EBMUD changed its tune,” Horn said. “They built an actual takeout by Middle Bar.”

This slow evolution by the district has finally yielded the opportunity for commercial rafting through the pilot program.

If the feasibility study does not reveal any major problems and community support is realized, commercial trips could take place as early as this fall, according to George Wendt, founder and president of OARS, who hopes his Angels Camp-based company is selected to participate in the pilot program.

Wendt said the opportunity was “a long time coming.”

“We were very happy to hear this is moving forward,” he said, emphasizing the regional economic boost it would bring to Amador and Calaveras counties and educational opportunities that could be developed.

Unfortunately for Wendt, his company is by no means guaranteed to be selected. Horn said only one or two companies will be able to run trips the first year, and they will be randomly selected. That lucky company will only be able to run two trips per day and will be limited to two 15-passenger vans.

Horn said ideally BLM will issue one commercial rafting permit, on commercial kayak instruction permit and one commercial fishing permit.

“We’ll get a pool of names and randomly select a company,” Horn said. “That’s the only fair way to do it.”

Even if OARS doesn’t get selected for the first year, Horn expects to add more companies in the second year if everything goes smoothly.

“Year two of the study, we might go to four raft companies,” he said. “We really haven’t made that decision yet. If by the third year we realize it’s way too much, we could ramp it down.”

“We’d be prepared to start right away,” Wendt said, adding trip cost would likely be in the neighborhood of $75 for adults and $65 for youths.

The 5.8-mile run begins near Vogts Beach just downstream from the Pacific Gas and Electric power station. Boaters are carried through a strikingly beautiful canyon filled with lush vegetation populated by many types of birds, mammals and fish. Before reaching the Highway 49 Bridge, two exciting and safe Class 2 whitewater rapids thrill boaters. Just below the bridge, Devil’s Toilet Bowl, a Class 3 rapid, provides the biggest rush of the day with a bigger drop followed by an exciting wave train. The Mokelumne continues to wind through the canyon rushing toward Pardee Reservoir and Middle Bar Bridge, where the two hour float reaches its conclusion.

Katherine Evatt of the Foothill Conservancy said the organization is strongly in support of studying the feasibility of commercial rafting on the river.

“The study will allow people who can’t kayak or raft on their own to enjoy our beautiful Mokelumne River,” Evatt said. “The Electra-Middle Bar run provides a perfect, safe rafting experience for families and those who want to take their first raft trip. We know there’s a market for it based on our experience running benefit trips on the river with OARS over the last four years.”

District 2 Supervisor Steve Wilensky, who has been closely involved in the process of opening up the Mokelumne to commercial rafting, said his priority is to strike a balance between providing expanded access to the Mokelumne and protecting the sensitive riparian environment.

“I wouldn’t ever want it to turn into the freeway the South Fork of the American is,” he said.

That being said, he believes careful planning can lead to a sustainable and environmentally conscious commercial operation.

“I’m tired of the paradigm that says the two choices are being absolutely pristine and perfectly beautiful and broke and being butt-ugly and pillaged and looted and a little less broke,” Wilensky said. “There is something in between that says we can combine good stewardship and recreation with some economic benefit without wrecking the river we’re enjoying. That’s the goal here – a good balance.”

While many rafting companies are interested in setting up shop on the Mokelumne, Wilensky hopes only those companies with a strong record of good stewardship would be allowed to guide trips on the river.

“I think we have a very strong record,” Wendt said. ‘We have been working with BLM offices for the last 43 years, and have an excellent rapport with them.”

Wendt said if OARS is given the opportunity to run trips on the Mokelumne it plans to offer educational trips at a discounted rate, which would take groups of students on a river trip paired with education on water conservation, fire prevention, wildlife protection and the importance of preserving clean drinking water.

“I think brining young people into the canyon and helping them learn will be very valuable for the area long term,” Wendt said.

Wilensky has been recreating on the Mokelumne River since his teens, when he first learned how to kayak on the Electra-Middle Bar run. He reminisced about many great memories he has and spoke of a deep attachment he feels for the beautiful stretch of river.

“That river, on a perfect afternoon with winds blowing up the canyon and eagles soaring overhead and cockney running up it and all the different things you might see, the splashing and the swimming and the paddling and that last big exciting rapid, is just a great run.

“It’s an experience I would recommend to anyone,” he said.

Not only does the river offer a unique outdoor experience, opening it up to commercial raft trips is in alignment with the long-term economic vision Wilensky has for the region.

“This is really consistent with economic development strategies that are appreciative and consistent with the beauty of the place, leaving it as it is without wrecking it,” Wilensky said. “Those are the kinds of economic developments through which we can prosper. Doing them carefully and with good neighborly input and getting the right organizations involved will give us a chance to make progress.”

Adding commercial rafting to our area’s tourism mix is long overdue,” Evatt said. “It’ll give people who haven’t been here before another reason to visit and others a reason to return or stay another day. It’ll provide local jobs and business income, too, which means more tax revenue for our counties and cities.”

Evatt said the conservancy conducted a survey of rafters this summer and nearly 75 percent of them spent money at a local business while they were in the area for the trip.

“No one wants to see the Mokelumne overused, and we’re very sensitive to that,” she continued. “But the Bureau of Land Management has carefully structured this study to avoid user conflicts, and we think it should be approved. You shouldn’t have to own your own raft or be a hardcore whitewater kayaker to enjoy our beautiful local river.”

While many of the entities involved in opening the Mokelumne up to commercial rafting are optimistic, EBMUD expressed several concerns.

“We want to support appropriate recreation on the Mokelumne,” said Richard Sykes, EBMUD director of water and natural resources. “We are concerned about water quality in Pardee Reservoir, public safety and expenses for rescues and things like that should problems occur. The more people who are in there, the higher the likelihood of human waste, which increases pathogen levels in the reservoir.”

Sykes said the district believes too much commercial recreation could create problems with traffic, parking, trash and degradation of the natural experience.

“The Mokelumne is a relatively small stream,” he said. “It cannot support the type of commercial activity as other rivers in our state.”

Lisa Mayo, executive director of the Calaveras Visitors Bureau, sees commercial rafting on the Mokelumne as a potential economic boon for the region.

“I can tell you that running commercial trips on the Mokelumne River would be a big boost for Calaveras tourism,” Mayo said. “It has the potential to turn day trippers into overnight visitors who spend more money in our communities.

“It is a river rafting experience that the whole family can enjoy. Also, depending on weather, commercial rafting on the Mokelumne has the potential to be a year-round activity.”

Horn agrees, stating he believes people should consider the economic impact.

“I think the public should know this has the potential to be good for the local economy,” he said. “Customers drive to the area, eat there, stay there, spend some time there. It is a good thing for the economy.”

Public comments will be accepted through Aug. 15 and can be sent to the BLM Mother Lode Field Office, attention Jeff Horn, 5152 El Dorado Hills, CA

For more information, call Horn at 916-941-3130.

To read the full BLM study, see associated document.

© 2015 Calaveras Enterprise. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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