It sure is difficult to think in a crisis, but now that the autumn winds have cleared the smoke and heat, our human faculties return and we ask: In the Mokelumne watershed, who is responsible for reducing the risk of catastrophic fire? Who will fund the stewardship work needed to keep the forests that water the Mokelumne from turning to ash?

Since 2017, in response to the 2015 Butte Fire, The Upper Mokelumne River Watershed Authority, (UMRWA) redefined its goals and became the dominant Authority for fuels reduction and forest health projects in the Mokelumne Watershed. According to their website, “UMRWA is a Joint Powers Authority comprised of six water agencies (Amador Water Agency, Calaveras County Water District, Calaveras Public Utility District, East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), Jackson Valley Irrigation District and Alpine County Water Agency) and the counties of Amador, Calaveras and Alpine.” Unfortunately, the largest landowners in the watershed, the U.S. Forestry Service (USFS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Sierra Pacific Industries are not represented on the UMRWA board, nor do they attend board meetings.

Since 2017 UMRWA has put $2.1 million to work reducing fuels on 2,600 acres within the watershed. This is a positive achievement but falls far short of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of acres that require stewardship.

At UMRWA’s quarterly meeting on Oct. 1, we learned that there is a backlog of 50,000 acres of USFS lands within the watershed that need fuels treatment, and even once that land is treated, up to 10,000 acres will require fuels treatment every year. This does not even take into account the private forested land within the watershed.

UMRWA is in the process of building a comprehensive map of the watershed to develop a “plan that addresses watershed level needs.” They are also consulting with Landmark Environmental Inc. on ways to move forward. Landmark staff gave an informative presentation, pointing out some of the obstacles to scaling impactful work in the forest. For example, “revenue thinning” is not currently permitted in federal forests. The push is to change the rules so that trees over 30 inches in diameter could be harvested and sold and that these “revenue treatments” would provide funds to pay for other forms of forest stewardship. EBMUD representative John Coleman, and UMRWA board president since 2000, commented that “if we could change the federal law that would allow the exportation of cut timber off of federal lands to outside the U.S., this could reduce some of the fuel load, while quite frankly, bringing some more employment back onto federal lands and improving forest health”.

Is that really in the best interests of our local economy and ultimately of the watershed we inhabit? Forests already provide our communities and economies with clean air, clean water and recreation opportunities, do we really want them to pay for their own maintenance? History has taught us that extracting natural resources from a region to be processed and sold elsewhere provides no sustainable benefits to the local economy. It simply transfers the wealth elsewhere, almost entirely. This type of extractive economy is commonly associated with state failures in Africa and other parts of the world.

“The lack of leadership is horrifying. How many million-acre fires do we need to see in the West before it is recognized that something is systemically wrong?” said Rob Alcott, Executive Officer of UMRWA. While Mr. Alcott is certainly not wrong, it seems that UMRWA is just as culpable as anyone else.

Funding is, of course, a key issue. EBMUD pays half of the UMRWA budget while selling Mokelumne River water to 1.4 million people, 97% of the population served from the Moke. Amador and Calaveras agencies pay half of the UMRWA budget and sell Mokelumne River water to 35 thousand people, 3% of the population served from the Moke.

On October 1, the UMRWA board voted to use $100k from their reserves to increase the level of effort on grant applications for forest stewardship. Mr Coleman, the EBMUD representative, pointed out that UMRWA increases their base funding ninefold through grants. Unfortunately, even a ninefold increase in the base funding is only treating 1500 acres per year, far from the initial 50 thousand plus acre need.

We will not find the funds to steward the forest in the forest. We must look to the communities and economies that rely on the water and air that the forest provides for the stewardship funding. The population receiving the benefit of Mokelumne River water in the East Bay is over 30 times larger than the local population using this water. It is time for our local politicians to demand proportional funding for UMRWA. A funding adjustment based on population would increase EBMUD’s contribution from $80 thousand to $3 million a year. This adjustment could then increase forest stewardship projects from the current 1,500 acres per year to over 28,000 acres per year.

The current scenario is leading the Mokelumne watershed to the same burnt fate suffered by the Calaveras in 2015 and the American this year. We still have a chance to steward the Mokelumne to safety. However, to do so will require the economies that use the water to proportionally pay for the stewardship.

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