Politics muddy issue of dams

April 19, 2007 11:00 pm

By JAMES MONTELEONE

For The Union Democrat

WASHINGTON — Rep. George Radanovich has promised action to maintain the Emigrant Wilderness check dams, but his minority status in the Democrat-led Congress means legislation will have to wait, an aide said.

"You can come out guns blazing and introduce a bill that might be great for one party involved, but if it's not going to pass, then there's really not a point," said Spencer Pederson, Radanovich's legislative assistant and deputy press secretary.

Whether the 18 check dams should be protected from natural erosion and whether their valves should be used has long been debated. Supporters of maintenance call the 75-year-old dams historic,

while opponents claim no man-made structures belong in any wilderness area.

Maintaining the dams, a stance supported by the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, but prohibited by a recent court decision, is Radanovich's number-one goal for the region, Pederson said.

A bill that would allow for upkeep was introduced in the mid-'90s by Rep. John Doolittle, R-Granite Bay, who represented Tuolumne and Calaveras counties at the time. It failed to make it through Congress, despite the Republican majority in both the House and Senate.

To pass a similar bill now — on the heels of the recent court opinion and in the face of Democratic leadership in Congress — would be extremely difficult, Pederson said.

A backup plan is yet to be developed.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know if we have any (backup plan) right now, but we're looking, doing outreach, trying to get some ideas." Pederson said. "When it's appropriate and when we think we can actually get traction, then we'll do something."

Short of legislation, Radanovich can only hope that President Bush formally names as many as seven of the dams to the National Register of Historic Places, which many say would allow them to be maintained.

A letter asking him to do so was sent to the president in the summer of 2006, but he has taken no action.

"It will be very interesting to see if the Democratic-controlled Congress is going to be as easily swayed as Congressman Radanovich would like," said John Buckley, director of the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Council.

Buckley defended the court decision and described the use of a valve system in the dams to control the water flow as "completely at odds with the Wilderness Act."

Even without legislation allowing the dams to be maintained, experts on both sides of the debate agree the slow rate of the dams' natural decay will allow the structures to survive for another 100 years or longer.

Tom Quinn, the Stanislaus National Forest supervisor who made the initial decision to maintain 11 of the 18 dams, said it came down to what Congress intended when it established the Emigrant Wilderness in 1975.

"It is pretty clear upon reading some of the Congressional record that the intent of many was that these structures be maintained," he said. "It's entirely possible that (a) simple sentence or two in 1975 would

have prevented any of this additional debate and expenditure over the years."

Such a clause probably wouldn't have even been debated when the Emigrant Wilderness was initially established, Quinn said.

While Buckley feared legislation allowing maintenance of the dams could set a dangerous precedent in allowing man-made structures to interfere with the wilderness, he was confident no such bill would go too far in the current political arena.

"The congressman is going to be able to show his constituents that he's done everything he can on this matter, but it is unlikely that this is going to move through this Congress in the short term," he said.

The rock and mortar dams were built by the late Fred Leighton and crews of volunteers between 1920 and 1951. Their aim was to preserve high-country trout fisheries through dry summer months by keeping streams flowing, lakes full and meadows green.