The 1,200-foot gray granite face of Calaveras Dome looms high above the upper reaches of North Fork Mokelumne River downstream from Salt Springs Dam, across from another glacier-polished rock face called Hammer Dome.

The massive, mute stone gatekeepers are at the high, east end of a 37-mile stretch of the North Fork Mokelumne and the main stem Mokelumne River that are now designated wild and scenic by the state of California.

Further down the remote, glaciated, forested river canyon, Katherine Evatt and Amanda Nelson with the Jackson-based Foothill Conservancy stood on a white granite shelf where the rushing river narrows to get around lichen-streaked dark gray boulder big as a multi-story house.

“This is a huge achievement for our community to have this designation,” said Evatt, who has played a key role in initiating and securing new protections for five segments of the North Fork Mokelumne and main stem Mokelumne rivers since she helped co-found the Foothill Conservancy in 1989.

One of the reasons it’s vital to protect the river from further development is the shortage of public parks and recreation areas in Amador and Calaveras counties, Evatt said.

“People in our community use the river like a park,” Evatt said. “We don’t have a lot of parks open to everybody, people of all ages and incomes. This river is a true gem, a resource for generations to come.”

A little further downriver, a woman squatted on rocks in shaded shallows, and nearby families with coolers and tents prepared for a weekend by the water. Evatt showed Nelson the put-in for kayakers and rafters at the designated Devil’s Nose River Access point.

Because the put-in is downstream from Salt Springs Dam, Pacific Gas and Electric Company has yellow-and-black signs posted high on incense cedars near the river’s edge, stating “Caution: Flow of river subject to sudden rises: All persons enter channel at their own risk.”

Recreation and scenery

The North Fork and main stem Mokelumne rivers are not free-flowing and unrestrained. The five sections of the 37 miles now designated wild and free are home to dams and powerhouses, and power lines are visible in some places, including some vistas below Calaveras Dome and Hammer Dome.

Nevertheless, all five segments have extraordinary recreation opportunities -- from rock climbing to swimming and fishing -- and the three easternmost segments have extraordinary scenic value, according to a March 2018 Mokelumne River Wild and Scenic River Study Report prepared by consultants for the California Natural Resources Agency.

Multiple agencies and nonprofits cooperated on the effort to get wild and scenic designation for the Mokelumne River, including Amador Water Agency, Calaveras County Water District, Calaveras Public Utility District, Jackson Valley Irrigation District, East Bay Municipal Utility District, the Foothill Conservancy and Friends of the River.

Eric Wesselman with Friends of the River, founded in 1973 during the struggle to save the Stanislaus River from New Melones Dam, said this week his group is thrilled.

“Big picture we are thrilled with this designation,” Wesselman said. “It means at the state level they can’t build any new dams on this river and this helps protect it at its current state. This is something we’ve been working on for decades.”

‘A natural asset’

Commercial rafting is not permitted on the Mokelumne River, but private individuals can kayak and raft sections of the waterway.

But Angels Camp-based OARS Rafting has a special use permit to offer day trips for the Calaveras Youth Mentoring Foundation and the Foothill Conservancy on the 6-mile Electra Run from below a powerhouse off Electra Road to Middle Bar just above Pardee Reservoir, said Steve Markle with OARS.

Both nonprofits use the rafting trips as fundraising opportunities, Markle said.

Markle said he’s been at OARS 16 years and the company has helped fight back multiple proposed developments on the Mokelumne River in that time.

“So this designation protects the river as it is now, which is a beautiful thing,” Markle said. “It’s a natural asset. Yes it has dams. But we work with PG&E for access to floatable water.”

Remote river canyon

At work on protections for the Mokelumne River since 1989, Evatt is considered one of the most knowledgeable people when it comes to the 37 miles of river now recognized as wild and scenic by the state.

Nevertheless, she says she doesn’t know anyone who has paddled or floated the entire 37 miles.

“We did go, back in June 2002, the uppermost section from Salt Springs to Tiger Creek, with a guide training trip put together by George Wendt at OARS,” Evatt said. “He met us and he knew we went on the river. He offered to take us.”

It was Evatt’s first time doing whitewater. She said some of the most challenging sections were class IV or V, advanced level to expert level. What impressed her most, she said, was how far out there she felt.

“You might as well be in the middle of nowhere,” Evatt said. “We were in the bottom of a very steep river canyon.”

What it means

California Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne means multiple things, Evatt said Friday.

+ No new dams can be built on the 37 miles of designated river, Evatt said. Dams that were previously proposed for the Mokelumne and stopped – the high and low Middle Bar Dams, and Devil's Nose Dam, will never be built.

+ Existing dams on the river cannot be enlarged to back up water into wild and scenic designated reaches, Evatt said. This permanently prevents upstream expansion of East Bay MUD's Pardee Reservoir, strongly opposed back in 2009 by Amador and Calaveras county officials, as well river, fish, conservation and historic preservation organizations, and members of the public. Litigation by the Foothill Conservancy, Friends of the River and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance prevented proposed upstream expansion of Pardee in 2011.

+ State agencies cannot participate in or grant funds for planning and construction of new dams or enlarged dams on wild and scenic designated reaches.

+ People can continue to use the river in all ways they do today: for recreation, water supply and hydropower generation. The designation will not affect PG&E's existing hydropower operations on the river.

+ Wildlife and fish that depend on the river will not be threatened by new or expanded dams.

+ State agencies will be charged with protecting the river's free-flowing condition, natural character and scenic beauty in any permitting processes in which they're involved.

+ Amador and Calaveras counties and business organizations will be able to use the wild and scenic status of the Mokelumne as a branding tool for attracting tourists.

+ Existing water rights and projects will not be affected.

Legislation designating 37 miles of the Mokelumne River wild and scenic was passed by the State Assembly and Senate on June 14 and it became law when Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 854 on Wednesday.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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