There is a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort underway to restore natural stream flows to many of the nation's waterways.
The poster child for this
groundbreaking work is California's Mokelumne River, which flows
from high up in the Sierras through the gold country. Dams and
diversions have reduced the river to a relative trickle, but that
is changing, thanks in large part to the efforts of a gravel-voiced
Pete Bell, 53,lives on a ridge near the tiny
foothill town of Volcano, and he is passionate about restoring the
river that flows near his home. The tool he’s using is a 1986
amendment to the Federal Power Act, which requires the Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission to consider environmental and
recreational needs in the relicensing of dams. That did not occur
half a century ago when most dams gained their license.
With some 100 dams coming up for relicensing over the next 15 years
in California alone, conservationists like Bell see this as a rare
window of opportunity.
The 1986 reform gave Pete Bell a
voice, and he has used it to get three dams removed in the
Mokelumne River watershed, and to dramatically increase flows from
nine other dams. During the 13-month round of relicensing
negotiations, Bell, who doesn’t fish or boat, was the only
one at the table who spoke up for the river.
something about free-flowing water that's almost magical," he
In the past, relicensing agreements were usually
sweetheart deals between dam operators and government biologists,
who, while making some concessions to sport fish, pretty much went
along with the minimal flows needed for maximum power
Now, over half a century since the last
Mokelumne relicensing, rivers are seen as more than something to be
harnessed. The law says that any dam operator has to take account
not only of the health of the river's fish but of its entire
ecosystem. This much broader approach was reflected at the
Mokelumne negotiating table. There was the utility company that
operates the dams but also sport boaters, sport fishermen, Bell's
local conservation group and seven government agencies.
The Mokelumne was to be one of the first of the new, all-inclusive
relicensing efforts in the United States., with virtually all of
the river's beneficiaries represented. Decision-making was by
consensus, though as talks began, the dams' licensee, Pacific Gas
& Electric, argued that a major objective of the process should
be to ensure the profitability of its hydro projects.
pivotal moment came when Bell presented an opposing view. He argued
that the main objective should be the health of the watershed, and
that nothing -- including utility company's desire for profits --
should get in the way of that.
Surprisingly, his argument
carried the day, setting the tone for the rest of the negotiations.
Ultimately the utility company came to accept the idea that less
water would be diverted through its power-generating turbines as
flows were restored in the river.
Throughout the long
negotiations, Bell stressed the environmental benefits of removing
three small dams in the watershed. As he pointed out, these dams
generated less than 1 percent of the Mokelumne project's
electricity. What’s more, these dams on three tributary
creeks of the Mokelumne had silted up and hadn't been used for
power generation since 1996.
As a result of Bell's
persistence and logic, three creeks in the watershed will soon flow
freely for the first time in 72 years.
Under other terms
of this agreement, completed in July 2000, stream flows will be
increased dramatically in the critical spring months, when high
flows are needed to wash accumulated sediment and debris from
stream channels, distribute nutrients and trigger fish spawning. At
five-year intervals, the health of the river system--its density of
vegetation, fish populations, and "all the other bugs and
critters," as Bell puts it--will be monitored to see if the
increased flows are meeting objectives.
agreement demonstrated that former adversaries could build trust
and work together, and that dams can be operated in a way that
meets a much broader range of human and wildlife needs than in the
past. For these reasons, it is being used as a model for
relicensing negotiations throughout the United States.
for Bell, his work is far from over. He's still part of the team
monitoring the river's health. And, using the Mokelumne example,
he's going out to other communities in California and spreading the
word that citizens who care about their rivers now have an
effective voice, a seat at the table.