About three dozen kayakers, canoeists and other watercraft enthusiasts signed up Saturday to paddle down the Tuolumne River and just go with the flow.
Their trek will provide important data on Tuolumne River flows as experts determine the minimum flow required for nonmotorized boating.
The flow was at 200 cubic feet per second below the Don Pedro Reservoir and Powerhouse.
"The flow was perfect," said Modesto resident Tom Kehoe, 45, who traveled about eight miles in four hours on the Tuolumne in an inflatable kayak. The river's depth was "a few inches to a few feet. The river was clean enough that you could see bottom most of the time."
The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts own Don Pedro Reservoir and its powerhouse, which generates electricity from falling water that spins turbines. The districts are renewing the hydroelectric plant with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The commission is requiring what is called a "boatable flow study."
Volunteers will go out on four more Saturdays this month and next. Reservoir operators will alter the flows to see how low they can go and still keeping boats afloat along about 40 miles of river between La Grange and Modesto.
The FERC will weigh lower river flows against the value of keeping the water in Don Pedro for irrigation, domestic supplies, power and recreation.
Don Pedro is the main storage for the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which serve farmers of 200,000-plus acres who are not keen on releasing a lot of water. On the other side are environmentalists who think the Tuolumne runs too low, especially in the Modesto area.
The MID and TID expect to spend more than $50 million on a new license, which will replace a 50-year license that expires in 2016. The main issue in the complex set of studies is whether to boost releases to help the struggling salmon population below the dam.
Saturday's volunteers launched their craft at three locations: La Grange, Turlock Lake and Modesto. The flow of 200 cubic feet per second is the equivalent of 200 basketballs passing before you in a second.
Kehoe grew up along the Tuolumne River in west Modesto. He said his dad taught him how to swim in the river when he was a youngster. He said he's on the river about two dozen times a year, often at night during a full moon.
"I have an interest in the Tuolumne," he said. "I grew up on the Tuolumne. I want to be part (of the effort) to give back to the community."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.
AT A GLANCE
More information on the Stanislaus County air support unit:
BASE: Modesto Airport
COMMANDER: Lt. Mike Parker
MISSION: Patrol, drug enforcement, search and rescue, assist local police
AIRCRAFT: Two helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft
STAFF: Two pilots, tactical flight officers, maintenance, support personnel
EQUIPMENT: Digital camera system, spotlight, night-vision goggles, thermal imaging
ANNUAL BUDGET: $374,000