Sierra Water Grab 

East Bay MUD wants to build a new dam and ruin a scenic stretch of the Mokelumne River because it is not willing to make its suburban customers conserve water.

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Foothills residents are also upset that the East Bay MUD board wants to build a new dam in their backyard when it previously chose not to construct one in Contra Costa County. A dam, known as Buckhorn, had been proposed in the 1990s for a canyon near Moraga. But local residents stopped it. "They pulled it completely out of their plan because it was too controversial," Bell noted, shaking his head. "But they're willing to come up here and do it."

An enlarged Pardee Reservoir also would force the removal of the historic Middle Bar Bridge, which was originally built in 1912 and was restored in 2000, and provides an essential escape route during wildfires. Plus, the dam would require a new bridge on Highway 49 to be built over the enlarged lake. In total, the reservoir would flood the river up to nearly a mile above Highway 49, thereby ruining most of the five-and-a-half-mile white-water run.

In an interview, East Bay MUD board member John Coleman, who is the biggest supporter of the new Mokelumne River dam and whose district is in Contra Costa County, attempted to downplay the scenario. He said the dam was still in its earliest planning stages, and may or may not ever be built. "Nothing is set in stone," said Coleman, whose district includes Alamo, Blackhawk, Danville, Diablo, and Lafayette, plus portions of Pleasant Hill, San Ramon, and Walnut Creek. Coleman also is the staunchest opponent of implementing steep penalties for heavy water users. "We're looking at numerous things, and the dam is just one component that could or could not happen. It's about keeping our options open. We might find that we need it. We might find that we won't need it. Maybe we'll find that we'll need a much smaller version."

But opponents of the dam note that despite such comments, the new dam is currently included in East Bay MUD's official draft environmental impact report for its water needs through 2040. The agency is currently accepting comments on the EIR through May 4, and the board is expected to approve the final environmental document, including plans for the dam, sometime this summer.

As of last Friday, the towns of Jackson, Ione, and Sutter Creek had all voted to oppose the new dam, as did the Amador Water Agency. Environmental groups that also officially oppose the dam include the Sierra Club's Bay and Mother Lode chapters and Friends of the River. Late last week, Coleman went on a whirlwind tour of public agencies in the foothills, attempting to persuade them not to oppose the dam. But he was not well received. According to Evatt, the Amador Water Agency refused to revoke its letter of opposition. And Wright said that the Amador County Board of Supervisors, despite hearing a presentation from Coleman, strongly indicated that it plans to vote against the reservoir expansion as currently planned.

But regardless of who is lining up against the dam, its fate will be decided by the East Bay MUD board, which represents voters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties — not the Sierra Foothills.

So far, the only member of the seven-person East Bay MUD board to officially oppose the new dam is Andy Katz. He represents Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito, Kensington, and a portion of North Oakland. Katz said he plans to vote to the remove the dam from the agency's official 2040 water plan when it comes before the board in July or August. "Building a dam is a last resort, no-regrets action," he said. "There are many options that are more desirable than enlarging Pardee."

Katz also supported a plan last year to adopt stiff penalties for heavy water users. The issue came up when the board was grappling with how to deal with the drought. Katz argued that a steep pricing plan — that is, one that raises prices significantly the more water you use — would be fairer for those residents who already practice conservation while placing the appropriate financial burden on water guzzlers. Ultimately, however, the board chose to do the opposite. It approved a plan that protected heavy water users and penalized those who were already conserving.

The district's so-called drought surcharge plan levied extra charges not based on overall current water usage, but on past water use. For example, if you were already conserving and using just 200 gallons of water a day, you were penalized if you used more than 180 gallons during the drought. On the other hand, if you were already wasting lots of water and using 750 gallons a day, you didn't have to pay the surcharge unless you used more than 675 gallons. In other words, you could use nearly four times as much water as your neighbor and not pay the penalty as long you had been wasting water for years.

As absurd as that sounds, the board voted for it. Coleman explained at the time that they feared heavy water users would stop paying their bills if the district went after them. "Basically, they fund the district," he said. "If they don't pay the bills, it can cause a hardship for the district." Not coincidentally, most of the heavy water users live in Contra Costa County, many of them in Coleman's district. Last year, Gary Breaux, the agency's director of finance, said that 20 percent of single-family homes use at least 750 gallons a day during summer, which ranks them as among the district's heaviest water users, and most of them are in Contra Costa County — east of the hills.

Last week, Coleman also argued that stiff penalties would create financial hardships for businesses, forcing many of them to flee the East Bay in what is already a dismal economy. He also argued that large corporations such as Chevron could end up laying people off if they're forced to pay significantly more for water. "It would hurt the economy of the East Bay," he said. "It would have a financial impact on people's livelihoods."

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