River advocates take a seat at the table

  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 river lover.

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.

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

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 generation.

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.

A 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.

The Mokelumne 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.

As 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.

Tim Holt is a contributor to High Country News, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. He lives in the Mount Shasta region of California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.