Tuolumne County wants say in licensing

Written by Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat March 07, 2013 08:48 am

Tuolumne County policymakers want more say in discussions that could change the way Don Pedro Reservoir and the Tuolumne River are managed.

Multiple county supervisors said this week they want local interests at the table as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission updates the license for the Don Pedro dam. The federal agency regulates hydroelectric dam operations and related water flows on the Tuolumne. The FERC license held by the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts expires in 2016.

The county Board of Supervisors approved a letter on Tuesday outlining concerns on some studies conducted as part of the licensing process. All five supervisors agreed the county should try to ensure any changes in policies at the state’s sixth-largest reservoir don’t negatively impact the community.

“I think we need to come up with a much more aggressive approach to this,” said Supervisor Evan Royce.

The board’s FERC letter, signed by Chairman Randy Hanvelt, focuses mainly on recreational opportunities at and around Don Pedro. The letter requests improvement to the Wards Ferry bridge site for Tuolumne River rafters to take out their rafts.

But the letter also shuns any take-out user fee for rafters of the upper Tuolumne that could hinder business. It also suggests flows on the lower river should accommodate recreational boating, fishing and power generation.

“Don Pedro and the inflowing Tuolumne River is a popular recreation destination for local residents and for users from the region and all over the world,” the letter states.

The FERC relicensing process takes years, and is estimated to cost as much as $50 million. Licensing involves myriad studies, public meetings and comment periods as all interested parties weigh in.

Organizations and agencies representing different agricultural, municipal, environmental and economic interests have all been actively involved.

MID and TID have released some initial reports.

Studies on the socioeconomic and recreation impacts of the lake are still in the works. Tuolumne County leaders say those studies are important to Tuolumne County, as the lake’s 500,000 annual boaters, campers, hikers and other visitors impact the local economy.

“I think we need to look at possibly getting a seat at the table, and if we can’t get a seat at the table, at least being in the room,” Supervisor Karl Rodefer said.

The dam was built in 1971, and today the water in the reservoir serves about 200,000 customers in the two Central Valley water-and-power districts.

The City and County of San Francisco, which own and operate Hetch Hetchy Reservoir upstream, also have an agreement for some storage at Don Pedro.

The Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center and other environmental organizations are looking at the FERC licensing process as one of the only chances to increase water flows to bolster the beleaguered river’s aquatic environment.

CSERC Executive Director John Buckley in an email told The Union Democrat when more water is diverted for agriculture, the water temperature and quality in the river declines.

The organization is not looking for a 50-50 split between water consumers and the environment, but a new FERC license could reduce by some percentage those diversions that currently go to flood orchards.

“A positive, balanced outcome would ensure that agriculture can count on getting the majority of the water that ag users have gotten in the past, but all other water interests would end up with more than the small amounts now left over,” Buckley stated.

The Tuolumne River Trust is also following the FERC process, with a focus on ecological and recreational issues. Patrick Koepele, the River Trust’s Sonora spokesman, said they would like to see a stronger, healthier population of salmon and steelhead fish traveling from the ocean up the Tuolumne.

That not only means stronger river flows, but Koepele said they would like to see some options covered in the license for possible alternate fish passages above the dam.

“There’s an opportunity for Tuolumne County to once again see salmon and steelhead in its rivers,” he said.

And like the county lawmakers, the River Trust is interested in improved conditions for rafters above and below the rivers. That could include putting in a real takeout spot at the Wards Ferry bridge for the 6,000 rafters who run the upper Tuolumne whitewater — also known as the “champagne of whitewater” every year.

“It’s a horrible place to take out for rafts,” Koepele said.