The East Bay Municipal Utility District's plan to build a new dam and destroy a scenic stretch of the Mokelumne River has received widespread condemnation from environmental groups and near universal opposition from residents and public agencies in the Sierra Foothills. And it appears that all the sharp criticism may be having an effect. The water agency has put off its expected approval of the dam proposal until October and has scheduled a workshop for next month to consider possible alternatives.
Doug Linney, president of the East Bay Utility District board of directors, said last week that the board has scheduled the workshop for August 11, and that possible alternatives to the new dam include partnering with Contra Costa Water District in its plan to expand Los Vaqueros Reservoir in eastern Contra Costa County. As Eco Watch has previously reported, the Contra Costa district's proposal to enlarge Los Vaqueros is less damaging to the environment and has generated little controversy (see "EBMUD Has Yet Another Option Besides a New Mokelumne Dam," 6/3/09).
The East Bay MUD board also may discuss a plan to penalize water guzzlers and thereby lessen demand. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have argued that the agency would not need to build a new dam if it forced its biggest water users to consume less water by levying steep fines (see "Sierra Water Grab," 4/29/09). Other water agencies throughout the arid West that have adopted such pricing plans have been able to lower water use significantly. In fact, East Bay MUD itself implemented such a plan during the drought in the early 1990s and it cut water use substantially, but the agency abandoned the program after enduring fierce criticism from heavy water users in Contra Costa County.
The East Bay MUD board had been expected to approve preliminary plans for the dam proposal at the August 11 meeting as part of an environmental impact report on the agency's water needs over the next thirty years. The new 400-foot dam would be built near the existing Pardee Dam near the Gold Rush town of Jackson and would nearly double the size of the Pardee Reservoir. The enlarged reservoir would submerge a five-mile stretch of the Mokelumne and ruin a section of the river that is popular for fishing, hiking, and kayaking. Not surprisingly, the dam proposal generated huge numbers of comments on the EIR. "I think it's fair to say that we got more of a response on the EIR than we expected," said Linney, explaining why the board decided to hold the workshop and consider alternatives rather than forge ahead with the EIR as is.
The board's change of plans also coincided with a decision by Sierra Club California to endorse a national Wild and Scenic designation for the Mokelumne. Such a designation, which requires approval by Congress, would prohibit East Bay MUD from building the dam. Both the US Forest Service and the US Bureau of Land Management have said that the Mokelumne is eligible for the designation. Sierra Club California represents the Sierra Club's thirteen chapters in the state. The Sierra Club Bay Chapter had already endorsed the Wild and Scenic designation, as has Friends of the River.
East Bay MUD's decision to conduct the August workshop also has renewed hope among Sierra Foothills residents that the board will ultimately choose not to build the dam. So far, nearly every public agency in the region has come out against the proposal. "I'm optimistic that they will listen to the consensus of our community and understand the depth of the opposition," said Katherine Evatt of the Foothill Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Mokelumne.
Still, despite the change of plans, it's not clear which way the seven-member East Bay MUD board is currently leaning. The only board member to publicly oppose the dam so far is Andy Katz, who represents Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Emeryville, Kensington, and a portion of North Oakland. Dam opponents also hope that Linney, who represents Alameda and San Lorenzo, along with parts of Oakland and San Leandro, will ultimately side with them because of his pro-environment background. But other board members, including John Coleman, who represents Alamo, Blackhawk, Danville, Diablo, and Lafayette, plus portions of Pleasant Hill, San Ramon, and Walnut Creek, have pushed hard for the dam proposal during the past few months. Currently, the board is scheduled to vote on the final EIR, including the dam proposal, on October 13. However, that date could be pushed back further if the board instructs staff at the August workshop to conduct thorough studies of alternatives to the dam.
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