Much of Calaveras County’s growing tourism economy is based on recreation. Our county boasts wonderful skiing, hiking and mountain biking trails, caving, horseback riding, rock climbing, fishing, kayaking and other water sports. In fact, Angels Camp has branded itself “the base camp for Sierra mountain sports.”
Among the most valuable recreation tourism assets in our county is the Mokelumne River. Area residents use the river for family picnics and water play, admiring wildflowers, fishing, birding, whitewater kayaking and rafting, camping, hiking and much more. It’s an incomparable resource for visitors who are attracted by its accessibility and scenic beauty along with the diversity of available outdoor experiences.
The contributions those river visitors make to local businesses through purchases of food, gasoline, lodging, merchandise and meals are an important part of our tourism economy. Gas stations, grocery stores, motels, restaurants, small shops and other businesses all benefit. County studies show that river visitors spend an average of $40 to $60 per person per day in the local economy. That spending, in turn, supports local jobs and tax revenue.
The addition of commercial rafting on the Mokelumne – scheduled to start this year or next – will add value to the river for Calaveras County. The Electra-Middle Bar section above and below Highway 49 is special because it offers a relatively easy 5-mile section of river that can be rafted in two hours. Rafting outfitters will offer morning or afternoon trip options for tourists, allowing them to combine a river rafting experience with wine tasting and other activities. Passengers from age 5 to 80 – or even older – can enjoy the river, because it doesn’t have an extreme element. After running rivers for more than 40 years, I know there is no other easily accessed California river that offers such a beautiful canyon with moderate rapids on a short, easily navigated section of river.
Yet every few years, a water agency from outside Calaveras attempts to build another new or larger dam on the Mokelumne, which would destroy the river as a local recreational and economic asset. Most recently, the East Bay Municipal Utility District proposed to raise Pardee Dam, which would have flooded the Mokelumne’s most popular recreation and whitewater boating section. Fortunately, strong community opposition combined with legal action by fishing and conservation groups protected the river, but only temporarily. We must protect the Mokelumne for good.
It is far too valuable a local economic asset to leave at the mercy of large, thirsty water agencies in other parts of our state. It’s time to act to secure its permanent protection.
The only way to secure protection for the remaining free-flowing sections of the Mokelumne is through wild and scenic river designation. California State Wild and Scenic River designation would prevent new dams from being constructed on the river without affecting its existing dams, reservoirs or water rights, current uses or private property rights. The Mokelumne would continue to serve us with water and power while it flows for future generations of Calaver-ans and visitors to use and enjoy. And it would continue to help us build a stronger, more-diversified economy.
I have been privileged to spend my life on and around rivers and to build an internationally known recreation tourism business with many employees. As a result of running recreation tourism operations across the nation and in other countries, I have seen how protecting beautiful places can lead to a steady visitor base, more recreation spending, benefits to small businesses, and jobs for adults and youths. But it’s hard to have river-based tourism if you don’t have a river.
On behalf of Outdoor Adventure Recreation Special-ists and my children and grandchildren, I urge all Calaveras County residents and the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors to support Cali-fornia State Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne River. Together, we can secure our river for generations to come.
George Wendt is the president and founder of O.A.R.S.