The Mokelumne River became California’s newest Wild and Scenic River when Governor Jerry Brown signed the natural resources budget bill in the last week of June. Protection of 37 miles of this magnificent river in the Sierra Nevada foothills – from Salt Springs Dam to a point just upstream of Highway 49 – became a reality after decades of advocacy by Friends of the River, Foothill Conservancy and other conservation groups.
The unusual legislative vehicle used to protect the river – the natural resources budget trailer bill – became possible after political obstacles were overcome and a rare consensus among conservation groups, water agencies and the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) was forged.
In response to 2016 legislation authored by Assemblyman Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neals), the CNRA conducted a study to determine the Mokelumne’s eligibility and suitability to be protected as a state Wild and Scenic River, a designation that helps protect it from destructive dams and diversions.
Released in early 2018, the study found the river to be free-flowing and to possess extraordinary scenic and recreation values. More than 1,700 people responded positively to the draft study’s conclusion that the river was suitable for state protection. The final report proposed special language to ensure that state designation did not affect existing water rights and facilities and that future additional rights to water from the Mokelumne could be acquired for projects that avoided harm to the river’s flow and extraordinary values.
Representatives from Friends of the River and the Foothill Conservancy worked out the language with water agencies from Amador and Calaveras counties, East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) and the CNRA. In response, the local foothill water agencies withdrew their long-standing opposition and formally supported Wild and Scenic protection for the Mokelumne.