California bill may jeopardize water supply

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A Northern California state senator is proposing a bill to designate the Mokelumne River as "Wild and Scenic" but water agencies disagree.

A controversial bill that could impact where millions of people in the Bay Area get their water is moving its way through Sacramento. The changes are proposed along a stretch of the Mokelumne River in the Sierra foothills. That river provides millions of homes with drinking water from the mountains to the Central Valley and the East Bay. Some people are wondering if a move to save the river could leave others high and dry.

The Mokelumne River runs 95 miles through five counties. Along the way, the river provides visitors with breathtaking views, and a cool reprieve from soaring temperatures.

"We like to say the Mokelumne is a river for everyone," said Cecily Smith of the Foothill Conservancy.

Smith and board member Katherine Evatt are with the environmental group. The conservancy has been working for more than two decades to have portions of the Mokelumne River declared "Wild and Scenic," under state law.

"It means that the river stays the way it is today, and we have a river in our future, for tomorrow, for people's children, for their grandchildren to enjoy," said Evatt.

Senate Bill 1199 has already passed the California State Senate. It is now working its way through the Assembly.

St. Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, introduced the bill. She said, "We're very hopeful that we can do this. It would join the 11 rivers that are already in that system."

If passed, the "Wild and Scenic" designation would prevent any new dams or hydroelectric plants from being built on a 37-mile stretch of the river.

"On average there are dams proposed every five or six years. So it's not as though it's a one-time threat, it's always there," said Smith.

That worries local water agencies.

"This was kind of a shock to us," said Gene Mancebo of the Amador County Water Agency.

His agency is one of six utilities that depend on the Mokulemne River for water or power.

Lawmakers and environmentalists say the "Wild and Scenic" declaration would not impact current water rights of those who use the river. But utilities are worried about future water rights.

Mancebo said, "It needs to both fulfill the requirements of protecting the river as well as allowing there needs to be resources for the community, we need that water supply, so it's a balance."

Hancock disagrees. She said, "If we waited for local water agencies to do the declaration. We would have no 'Wild and Scenic' rivers in California."

East Bay MUD and four other water agencies oppose the bill as it is currently written. PG&E has not taken a stance on the legislation.

Amador County Supervisor Brian Oneto opposes the bill as well. He sayd, "The Board of Supervisors thinks this is very ill timed legislation. And if it passes the assembly, I would hope that the governor vetoes it, because it is not a good thing."

Oneto wants the senator to pull the bill and sit down with all the stakeholders to hammer out a compromise.

"In this type of era, in this historic drought, I think it's a huge mistake," said Oneto.

However, environmentalists say now is the best time to save the river.

"The best way to get long term permanent protection is to seek protection under 'Wild and Scenic Rivers' designation," said Smith.

The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday night to continue its support of the "Wild and Scenic" designation, despite the objections of local water officials.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel
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