Rafters, farmers, environmentalists all hope to benefit from Don Pedro relicensing

An OARS raft runs the Tuolumne River
An OARS raft runs the Tuolumne River OARS

Whitewater rafting businesses are holding out hope of getting a safe landing area near the Ward’s Ferry bridge over the Tuolumne River, as a condition of relicensing the Don Pedro hydroelectric project.

At a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hearing Tuesday in Modesto, speakers said an existing takeout for rafts on the Tuolumne, upstream from Don Pedro Reservoir, is under water because of dam operations. And the options for getting boats out of the water are not safe.

After their ride on the Wild and Scenic Tuolumne, rafters risk injury by dragging their gear up a rocky trail. Another method is parking a truck on the bridge and lifting the boat with a winch.

FERC’s draft environmental impact statement didn’t recognize a nexus between the hydro project and the long-awaited boat-takeout facilities upstream of Ward’s Ferry. The federal agency will put final touches on the EIS between now and August and is obligated to respond to the public comments.

Melissa Williams, a spokeswoman for the Modesto Irrigation District, said the Bureau of Land Management has the ability to seek a condition for the boat-takeout improvements on the federal land. A BLM proposal has been whittled down from an original $50 million in improvements to $12 million for a hoisting platform, a vehicle turnaround, paths and trails, parking spaces and toilets.

If the improvements are included in the new license, the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts could offset the costs by charging fees.

The districts are seeking to relicense Don Pedro for up to 40 years, which triggers a review of proposed environmental measures and other issues.

People attending Tuesday’s meeting at the DoubleTree Hotel also spoke about the much-debated flow proposals for the lower Tuolumne, a voluntary settlement agreement, and whether it makes sense to eliminate bass to protect young salmon in the river.

Representatives of the Tuolumne River Trust and Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center said a state water board plan for 30 to 50 percent flows downstream from Don Pedro was a better compromise for balancing the needs of agriculture, city water users and the environment.

A primary issue is the threatened salmon population, whose numbers have fallen from more than 100,000 annual returns to a few thousand since construction of the New Don Pedro project, completed in 1971. The 580-foot-high dam detains upward of 2 million acre-feet of water in the reservoir.

For the past few years, local irrigation districts and communities have fought the State Water Resources Control Board plan for higher spring flows on the lower Tuolumne, saying the economic impacts are unacceptable.

FERC’s environmental study recognizes a voluntary settlement negotiated by the districts and the state natural resources agencies in the waning days of former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.

Under the voluntary agreement, MID and TID would release aggressive pulse flows in March and use other measures to increase spawning and help out-migrating salmon. The FERC document does not recommend the habitat improvements and predator controls outlined in the districts’ management plan for the lower Tuolumne.

Biological studies commissioned by the districts concluded that young salmon are decimated by nonnative bass species before they reach the confluence of the San Joaquin River, and only a few make it through the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta to the ocean.

“We know predation is the overwhelming problem,” said Jake Wenger, a farmer and former irrigation district board member.

Fishermen who attended a more vocal evening session of the FERC meeting said there’s no reason to eliminate the striped bass and black bass through fishing derbies and netting. The anglers stressed that an eradication program won’t make a difference.

Katherine Borges of Salida suggested that a hatchery on the Tuolumne would do more to bolster the salmon population. She said ratepayers should not foot the bill for predation control.

Other speakers had explanations for the decline in salmon, including an increase in sport and commercial fishing and sea lions feasting on adults in the delta and rivers.

The FERC panel that held Tuesday’s meeting included staff and consultants who worked on the environmental document. The full commission, which has a conservative makeup with a Republican in the White House, will ultimately decide whether to approve the EIS and Don Pedro relicensing.