Protecting the Mokelumne River benefits landowners as well as the public

Article from Ledger Dispatch.

Katherine K. Evatt President, Foothill Conservancy
May 1, 2017

In his recent opinion piece about Assembly Bill 975 and Wild and Scenic Rivers in general, Phillip Young misrepresented existing and proposed state law, federal law, and the effect of river protection on private property. He also wrongly asserted that current law adequately protects our rivers.

Wild and Scenic River protection for the Mokelumne (which is not part of AB 975) would be good for landowners, those who love and use the river, and the river’s wildlife and fish. Wild and Scenic protection permanently bars new dams on designated rivers or river segments, thereby allowing all of us to continue to use and enjoy those waterways. It also protects private property owners from condemnation due to dam building or reservoir expansion. No other state or federal law does that.

Looking at history can help put this in perspective. I’m sure many of you remember 2009, when the East Bay Municipal Utility District proposed to expand Pardee Reservoir. The enlarged reservoir would have drowned the entire Middle Bar Reach of the Mokelumne River below Highway 49, the historic 1912 Middle Bar Bridge (cutting off a key fire-evacuation route), and the lower Electra Run upstream of Highway 49. To enlarge the reservoir, EBMUD would have condemned private property along the Mokelumne. That proposal was a real threat to private property rights and property values.

EBMUD approved the Pardee expansion over the strong objections of many local residents and agencies, including not only the Foothill Conservancy, but the Amador County Board of Supervisors, Amador Water Agency, Amador County Recreation Agency, four of our local cities, the Amador Historical Society, and riverside landowners.

After EBMUD ignored local concerns, our organization and its conservation partners, the Friends of the River and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, filed a lawsuit. When we won, EBMUD decided to drop the Pardee expansion and obtain water from an off-stream, East Bay reservoir (Los Vaqueros) – as we had recommended early on.

That was a good outcome, but never a guaranteed one. We could have lost the suit, or EBMUD could have appealed and won in a higher court.

If the Mokelumne had been a Wild and Scenic River when EBMUD began its long-term water plan, the Pardee expansion-related conflict, litigation, stress and expense would have been avoided. Knowing that the river was protected, EBMUD would have focused on the viable water supply alternatives it eventually embraced. But without Wild and Scenic protection, our river’s fate was left to the courts and East Bay politicians.

While EBMUD now supports river protection, that could change in the future: There is nothing in state or federal law that would keep them from moving again to expand Pardee after the expiration of temporary legal protections put in place by Assembly Bill 142 in 2015.

The same is true for San Joaquin County’s twice-proposed Middle Bar Dam. The high version of that dam would have flooded the river canyon nearly to Roaring Camp, eliminating miles of the Mokelumne from Pardee to Electra that are loved by locals and tourists alike. The Middle Bar Reservoir also would have inundated PG&E’s Electra Powerhouse and resulted in condemnation of many acres of riverside private land.

If you look at the history of dams and river protection across the nation– and here in Amador County – it’s clear that new dams are a much larger threat to private property owners than river protection. Just ask the families who lost their ranches when EBMUD built Pardee and Camanche, or the many families in the eastern U.S. who lost homes and farms (and even entire towns) to the Tennessee Valley Authority dams. The Pickwick Landing Dam alone required the relocation of 506 families.

Wild and Scenic River designation leaves private land use control and management to local government. Local governments control land use on private land and continue to do so after designation. It’s important to note, too, that the state has never condemned land on a state-designated river, even though they have the power to do so now. (AB 975 doesn’t change that power, by the way.)

Ironically, federal Wild and Scenic designation can in fact bar any fee title condemnation of private land along a river. That would be true for the Mokelumne if the river were designated a federal Wild and Scenic River from Salt Springs to the backwaters of Pardee.

California’s Wild and Scenic rivers are real places with real history. We encourage anyone who wants to know what happens when a river is protected to go and see those rivers for themselves.

You don’t have to take Young’s word, or even ours, to see what Wild and Scenic protection does and doesn’t do.

The closest examples of protected rivers are the Lower American River through Sacramento (a state and federal Wild and Scenic River), the East Carson River (state), and the West Walker River (state). Along the American, you’ll see (very valuable) homes, businesses, parks, a popular recreation trail, lots of recreational use, bridges, and the huge Fairbairn water diversion facility (just west of the Howe Avenue Bridge). It was doubled in size after the river was permanently protected. The Carson and Walker are popular recreation sites, too.

Finally, we’d like to add this: While nearly every California Wild and Scenic River is in a rural county, no rural county has ever tried to de-designate its protected river. That should be ample evidence that permanent river protection and conservative, rural values can in fact go hand in hand.

It’s time to stop bashing local people and groups who support permanent river protection and consider this question: Do you want to have a Mokelumne River in our future that is like the river you know and love today? If your answer is yes, we urge you to support Wild and Scenic River designation. It’s the only certain path to permanent protection for our beautiful – and yes wild and scenic – river.

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