The East Bay Municipal Utility District has come under intense criticism for its plan to build a giant new dam in the Sierra Foothills that would ruin a stretch of the scenic Mokelumne River. The dam would be unnecessary if East Bay MUD simply forced its heaviest water users to conserve more water, as was reported here a few weeks ago. But there is at least one more reason why the new dam is unneeded. A neighboring water agency is planning a more environmentally friendly expansion project and it wants a partner. Yet East Bay MUD has expressed virtually no interest in the project.
The Contra Costa Water District, which serves Concord, Martinez, and eastern Contra Costa County along with parts of Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek, wants to expand its Los Vaqueros Reservoir, on the eastern side of Mount Diablo. The current reservoir holds about 100,000 acre-feet of water, and the water district plans to expand it to 160,000 acre-feet or even 275,000 acre-feet, depending on how many partners it can find. The project has generated some opposition in the environmental community, but nothing like the backlash East Bay MUD has experienced with its Mokelumne River dam proposal.
Yet East Bay MUD has effectively blown off requests by the Contra Costa Water District to become its partner. In fact, East Bay MUD didn't even study the Las Vaqueros Reservoir expansion as a potential option for its water needs through the year 2040. "East Bay MUD needs to take another look at the Los Vaqueros," said David Nesmith, coordinator of the Environmental Water Caucus and a member of the Sierra Club's Bay Chapter Water Committee, which opposes the Mokelumne dam proposal.
To be clear, Nesmith and other environmentalists would actually prefer that East Bay MUD meet its future water needs by promoting more water conservation, and driving down the demand for water by significantly raising prices for water guzzlers. But they believe that East Bay MUD should have at least studied the Los Vaqueros plan as part of the agency's official environmental impact report on its future water needs. Instead, the agency chose to pursue the new Mokelumne River dam. The agency's board of directors likely will vote on the final report in August, including whether to go forward with the Mokelumne dam proposal (for more on the dam and what it would do, see "Sierra Water Grab," 4/29).
The difference between the two dams is more than simply location. The Mokelumne dam would enlarge Pardee Reservoir by destroying a beautiful section of a river popular for its fishing, swimming, and kayaking. But there is no comparable river at risk in the proposed Los Vaqueros expansion because that reservoir is what's known as an off-river storage facility, which is filled with water diverted from elsewhere. Hence, a new dam at Los Vaqueros would enlarge that reservoir's storage capacity without necessarily destroying a wild river in the process.
Alex Coate, East Bay MUD's director of water and natural resources, says the agency chose not to seriously study the Los Vaqueros expansion plan because when East Bay MUD began its planning process last summer, there was too much uncertainty about the Los Vaqueros proposal. "At the time, there was very little information on the project," he said.
But in a letter to East Bay MUD last June, Leah Orloff, water resources manager for the Contra Costa Water District, disputed Coate's assertion. She contended that the Los Vaqueros proposal was "more advanced" than other projects East Bay MUD was seriously considering, including a large desalination project that the agency is still interested in pursuing. Orloff also reinvited East Bay MUD to partner with them. In addition, last month Orloff sent the district a letter noting that the Los Vaqueros environmental impact report was now public and that the expansion project was moving forward. She again urged East Bay MUD officials to look more closely at partnering with her agency. "We think there is true potential to explore this," she said in an interview.
Nesmith notes that East Bay MUD also has been acting hypocritically about its plans. After a firestorm erupted over the Mokelumne River dam proposal, East Bay MUD officials began telling foothills residents in recent weeks that the dam is only in its early stages and might be relocated, resized, or never even built. In other words, they're telling foothills residents that their proposed dam is even less certain than the Los Vaqueros expansion project, while telling the Contra Costa Water District that its project is too sketchy to take seriously. "Their rationale just doesn't hold," Nesmith said. "They're trying to have it both ways."
Alameda and the Dam
Locally, meanwhile, some activists are questioning whether East Bay MUD board member Doug Linney can be objective when he votes on the Mokelumne dam proposal later this summer. Linney, you see, is a paid political consultant for SunCal, which wants to build a massive 5,000-home development on the former Alameda Naval Air Station at Alameda Point that's going to require a lot of water. "If he's going to be making votes on this dam, I question whether he has a conflict, because 5,000 or 6,000 homes are going to need water," said David Howard, an opponent of the development.
But Linney insists that his paid political work for SunCal will not affect his vote. "The only question for me will be how we plan to accommodate future growth in this district in an environmentally sustainable way," he said in an interview. Because of questions posed by Eco Watch, Linney said he consulted with East Bay MUD's attorney and was told that he has no conflict of interest. The reason, he said, is because East Bay MUD is legally required to provide water for the new development regardless of whether the dam is built or not. In other words, the fate of the housing development is not tied to that of the dam.
Currently, SunCal is gathering petition signatures for a November ballot initiative. To build the development, SunCal must convince Alameda voters to award the company an exemption to a 1970s antidensity law that only allows about 1,800 homes on Alameda Point. Linney, who represents Alameda on the East Bay MUD board, said he expects that SunCal will pay him more than $10,000 this year for his political consultancy work.
Dam opponents who hope that Linney will ultimately side with them also said they were not concerned about his advocacy for the Alameda Point housing project — or his objectivity. "I don't think it would influence his vote," said Katherine Evatt of the Foothill Conservancy, which is fighting to save the Mokelumne. "I think he is a person of integrity, and he'll make a decision based on what he thinks is best."