Persistence frees the Mokelumne: River advocate Pete Bell

by Tim Holt

California’s Mokelumne River flows from a high mountain lake in the Sierra Nevada, plunging down in a series of cascading waterfalls through a steep forest canyon in the foothills. Dams and diversions have reduced the once free-flowing river to a relative trickle. But that is changing, thanks in large part to the efforts of a gravel-voiced river-lover.

Pete Bell, 53, is a former rock drummer who now makes his living as a sound and recording engineer. For the past 24 years, he’s lived high up on a ridge near the tiny foothill town of Volcano, and he’s passionate about restoring the river that flows near his home (the river’s name is pronounced ma-call-a-mi).

Bell spent most of the 1990s defending the Mokelumne Watershed, fighting off a proposed dam, and monitoring timber sales that threatened to send soil eroding into waterways. More recently, using an obscure 1986 law, he has helped get three dams removed from the watershed, and his efforts will lead to increased river flows from nine other dams. Yet Bell is neither a fisherman nor a recreational boater — he’s simply someone who loves rivers for their own sake.

"There’s something about free-flowing water that’s almost magical," he says.

Early on in his river crusade, Bell found a little-known tool attached to the 1920 Federal Power Act, which gives the U.S. government control over hydro-electric dams. Under the act, dam operators are required to renew their federal licenses every 30 to 50 years.

In the early years of hydropower, relicensing agreements were usually sweetheart deals. Government biologists won some concessions for sport fisheries, but they largely gave utilities whatever water flows they needed to generate power.

Then, in 1986, Congress amended the Federal Power Act, requiring the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to consider the health not only of fish, but also of the entire river ecosystem. Recreational opportunities had to be considered as well. Fourteen years later, the amendment gave Bell a seat at the negotiating table, when the Mokelumne became one of the first of the new, all-inclusive relicensing efforts in the United States.

The effort brought together not only Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility company that operates the dams, but also sport boaters, sport fishers, and seven government agencies. Bell, as a representative of the local environmental group, the Foothill Conservancy, was the only volunteer at the table during 13 months of negotiations.

Bell worked hard to convince Pacific Gas and Electric to remove three small dams on tributaries of the Mokelumne. He pointed out that these dams had become clogged with silt and hadn’t been used for power generation since 1996. Even when they were operating, they generated less than 1 percent of the Mokelumne project’s electricity.

"He just refused to let go of that issue. He was adamant about getting those dams removed," says Stafford Lehr, a state Fish and Game biologist who sat alongside Bell at the negotiating table.

Bell was persistent — and he was also passionate. Early in the negotiations, the group got sidetracked with a lengthy discussion of how improved stream flows might affect the utility company’s bottom line. Bell lost his cool, arguing that the health of the river should take priority over profits.

"I could see the agency people nodding their heads in agreement," he recalls. "They were in sympathy with what I was saying, but they didn’t have the luxury of expressing the kind of outrage I did. For me, it really reinforced why I needed to be at that table."

Ultimately, Pacific Gas and Electric agreed to take out the three dams, under a relicensing agreement completed in July 2001. As a result, three creeks in the watershed will flow freely for the first time in more than 70 years.

"It was a matter of achieving sustainable balance," says David Moller, chief negotiator for the utility. "The generation impacts of these three dams was modest, whereas the ecological impacts seemed to be substantial."

In order to restore the Mokelumne, the utility company also gave up some of the water that had been diverted through its power-generating turbines. Stream flows will be increased dramatically in the critical spring months, to wash sediment and debris from stream channels, distribute nutrients, and trigger fish spawning.

But Bell’s work is not over yet: He is now part of the team monitoring the river’s health. Every five years, the team will measure the density of vegetation, fish populations, and "all the other bugs and critters," as Bell puts it, to see if the increased flows are meeting objectives.

The Mokelumne agreement is being used as a model for relicensing negotiations throughout the United States. With some 100 aging dams coming up for relicensing over the next 15 years in California alone, conservationists say they have a rare window of opportunity. In Bell’s region, the Stanislaus, Feather and American rivers are currently in negotiation, as is another major river system, the Klamath, that straddles Oregon and California.

Bell is working with the California Hydropower Reform Coalition to educate citizens about the 1986 Power Act amendment.

What advice does Bell have for fellow river-lovers before they plunge into relicensing negotiations? "It comes down to persistence and building relationships and doing your homework," he says.

"And," he adds, "getting passionate at the right time can be very helpful."

The author is an environmental writer who lives in the Mount Shasta region.

© High Country News