The controlled spillway at Don Pedro Dam and the need to remove Bonds Flat Road when the spillway gets used “is an absolute disaster” that creates “enormous public safety concern,” two of Tuolumne County’s top elected leaders said this week.

“The Don Pedro spillway is Oroville all over again,” Randy Hanvelt, District 2 supervisor, said in a meeting in Sonora. “It just dumps into dirt. We’ll get hydraulic mining when it goes over that. When they open the gates, the channel is grossly inadequate for the flows necessary to make an impact.”

Hanvelt was comparing the February 2017 opening of Don Pedro’s controlled spillway due to near-record precipitation and runoff in the Tuolumne River watershed to the controlled spillway failure at Oroville Dam on the Feather River a few weeks earlier. The Oroville crisis prompted evacuation orders for more than 180,000 people in Butte County, 160 miles northwest of Sonora.

Members of the county Board of Supervisors made their comments Tuesday in response to an amended license renewal application for the Don Pedro Project from Turlock Irrigation District and Modesto Irrigation, which own the Don Pedro dam, powerhouse and reservoir. Some of Tuolumne County leaders’ comments have been forwarded to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the nation’s capital.

Hanvelt and other supervisors want a bridge at Bonds Flat Road so that using the controlled spillway, opened twice since completion of New Don Pedro Dam in 1971, will no longer require removal of the road itself. But no bridge and no other mitigation plan for the situation are in 6,000-plus pages of the renewal application, said John L. Gray, District 4 supervisor and board chair.

Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts require renewal of their federal license to use water to make power at Don Pedro, the Golden State’s sixth-largest storage reservoir, Liz Peterson, a county analyst, said Tuesday. Don Pedro was 82 percent full Wednesday with more than 1.6 million acre-feet of water impounded behind the dam.

Prior focus on recreation

Public comments are being accepted on the Don Pedro Project amended license renewal application until Jan. 29. The FERC license renewal process began in 2011.

Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts are pursuing a 50-year renewal to keep making hydroelectricity at Don Pedro.

Over time, concerns expressed by Tuolumne County leaders have focused on recreation, access, whitewater rafting concerns, an unsafe take-out point for rafters at Wards Ferry Bridge, and an unsafe intersection at La Grange Road and Bonds Flat Road, Peterson said Tuesday.

The current take-out at Wards Ferry Bridge is an “an extreme safety, traffic, all kinds of hazards” situation because rafting companies often park truck cranes on the bridge and use them to haul boats and gear up out of the river, Peterson said.

The amended final license application published by Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts in October proposes building a boat take-out platform to support up to three truck cranes that can lift whitewater rafts out of the Tuolumne River just upstream from Wards Ferry Bridge.

But most safety concerns previously noted and expressed by the county Board of Supervisors, including road improvements and maintenance of Wards Ferry Road, parking at Wards Ferry Bridge, cell phone communications at the Wards Ferry Bridge take-out, are not addressed in the amended final license application, Peterson said.

Conservationists and rafters sound off

Patrick Koepele, executive director of the nonprofit Tuolumne River Trust, said he and his group view the new FERC license process for the Don Pedro Project as an opportunity to improve dam management for the environment, water supply and recreation.

Many stakeholders, including the Tuolumne River Trust, support the call for a safe whitewater take-out and recreation facility at Wards Ferry Bridge.

“The Tuolumne is a world-class whitewater river that attracts people from all around the world and it is vitally important to the tourism industry in Tuolumne County,” Koepele said Wednesday. “The existing conditions at the bridge are significantly impacted by reservoir management and create a very unsafe condition.”

Asked why the current setup is unsafe, Koepele said it’s dangerous because it’s very steep and when the reservoir is low it requires hiking rafts weighing 120 pounds and more, and equipment, up to 100 vertical feet up a very steep slope with loose rocks and debris.

“It’s a very long, steep hike and truly creates an impediment to more people rafting the Tuolumne because the take-out is so poor,” Koepele said.

The proposed Wards Ferry take-out facility can be improved in a number of ways, Koepele said. Most importantly, it can be larger than what Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts have proposed, to accommodate the number of people who will use the facility at one time. It can also be improved for day users who come to relax, cool off and fish.

Koepele added he is “heartened” that Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts have proposed the improved facility at Wards Ferry Bridge in their license application. He also said the Tuolumne River Trust is looking forward to “improved conditions for the river below La Grange for fish, wildlife, and people.”

Steve Welch with the Groveland-based nonprofit ARTA, also known as the American River Touring Association, said he and his group have been involved in discussions with the Turlock and Modesto districts regarding the relicense process for more than two years.

There are many reasons the current situation at Wards Ferry Bridge is dangerous, Welch said. The most notable is the overlap that occurs on the bridge when river users are taking out, transferring guests into buses and gear into trucks, while people are driving across the bridge.

“Moving our activity off of the bridge will greatly reduce that danger,” Welch said Wednesday. “Additionally, creating a better path for equipment and people to more easily egress the reservoir, which is always fluctuating in level, will make the experience better for everyone.”

The Tuolumne is a National Wild and Scenic River, and recreational use of the river by rafters and kayakers provides tremendous economic benefits to Tuolumne County, especially Groveland, Welch said. His assessment coincided with Koepele’s, that the existing take-out facility is a deterrent to use.

“Our hope is to have a nice, multi-use facility for rafters, swimmers, picnickers, and anglers at Wards Ferry Bridge,” Welch said, “that doesn't impact traffic.”

Spillway blasted

Back in Sonora on Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors agreed with Peterson’s summary of their concerns for the Don Pedro license renewal. But they took aim at the controlled spillway situation because of the need to remove Bond Flats Road each time the spillway is opened.

“I want to comment on the Don Pedro spillway,” Hanvelt said Tuesday. “I just think that is an absolute disaster. When Bonds Flat Road wasn’t there the travel time for emergency responders to Don Pedro was not 5 minutes it was like 17 minutes. That’s inexcusable. We’re putting people at risk.”

What happened at Oroville last year, no one wants to see that happening in Tuolumne County or anywhere downstream from Don Pedro Dam, Hanvelt said.

The timing when the controlled spillway at Don Pedro is most likely to be used can coincide with when fires are likely, said Karl Rodefer, District 5 supervisor. Closing a major thoroughfare for Don Pedro area communities really limits options when there are parallel crises like flooding and fires.

“That road needs to be enhanced so that it’s independent of the spillway,” Rodefer said. “That is on them (Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts). That is not our responsibility. Of all the things we’ve talked about, that, in my mind, is most critical.”

When Bonds Flat Road is out for use of the controlled spillway at Don Pedro, many motorists have to drive through Stanislaus County and part of Madera County to reach their destinations, said Sherri Brennan, District 1 supervisor. Lengthy detours are compounded by flooding safety issues in the same area.

‘Stronger wording’

Gray agreed that stronger wording was needed in board comments on the controlled spillway for the Don Pedro Project license renewal application. He, Hanvelt, Rodefer, Brennan and Evan Royce, District 3 supervisor, voted 5-0 to approve the board comments with stronger language.

A bridge on Bonds Flat Road at the Don Pedro controlled spillway is a “critically necessary safety measure,” Gray said in signed comments transmitted Tuesday to FERC. The removal of Bonds Flat Road when the spillway is used creates an “enormous public safety concern” for residents and first responders to the community of Don Pedro, Gray said.

“The AFLA (amended final license application) contains no mitigation measures for future use of the spillway and the county believes the road needs to be engineered such that it operates independently of the spillway's operation,” Gray said in closing. “The county is committed to working with the districts to devise a solution to this public safety concern.”

Calvin Curtin, a Turlock Irrigation District public information officer, said Wednesday the Turlock and Modesto districts plan to spend more than $158 million on improvements proposed in the amended application. The lion’s share of that, more than $130 million, is intended to improve habitat for native migratory fish like salmon and other wildlife. About $6 million is earmarked for the Wards Ferry take-out facility.

Asked for Turlock Irrigation District response to the critical comments made by members of the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, Curtin did not respond in time for publication of this report.

Contact Guy McCarthy at or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.