Wild River Lands in Suspense File

by Joe Eaton

Remember that chart showing how a bill becomes a law in your high school civics textbook—all those boxes and arrows? Odds are it didn’t include the Suspense File of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, a legislative limbo where bills can expire without ever coming to
a vote. That was the fate of Senate Bill 1199, a measure introduced by State Senator Loni Hancock (DBerkeley) in April to add portions of the Mokelumne River to the California Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Supported by Friends of the River, the Foothill Conservancy, and the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors, SB 1199 cleared the Senate in May. In the Assembly, Appropriations Chair Mike Gatto referred the bill
to the Suspense File because of its alleged fiscal impact. On August 14, the committee debated and voted on some—but not all—of the 43 bills in suspense. SB 1199 was not among them. And that was the end of the road for this legislative session.

Photo by Steve Evans
Photo by Steve Evans

Through a series of dams operated by the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), the Mokelumne supplies water to Senator Hancock’s constituents and other Alameda
and Contra Costa County residents. There are also seven dams and a major diversion point upstream of the section proposed a wild and scenic designation. Protected status for the remaining free-flowing stretches has been on the table since a US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management study in 1985. The federal Wild and Scenic Rivers System is more protective than the parallel California system. When the climate in Congress dimmed prospects for federal status, river advocates looked to the California legislature. Hancock took action because no Senate or Assembly members from the Sierra foothills were willing to sponsor a bill. 1199 would have protected 37 miles of the North Fork and mainstem Mokelumne, including the three-mile Electra Reach, a Class II+ paddling run.

The bill found broad support in Calaveras, including the Board of Supervisors. Foothill Conservancy director Cecily Smith attributes this to local memories of the damming
of the Stanislaus River, which failed to produce the recreational revenue projected by dam proponents: “The dam killed the most popular whitewater rafting river in the West. Afterward, the area never recovered the same level of economic activity.” The Sierra Club, the Planning and Conservation League, the Sierra Nevada Alliance, Native American tribes, sport fishing groups, and Calaveras County businesses also signed on in support of the bill. But water agencies in Amador, Calaveras, and San Joaquin counties, participants in
the Upper Mokelumne River Water Authority (UMRWA), lined up against it, as did the Amador County supervisors. The Amador Water Agency in particular remained implacably opposed, despite the assurance of proponents that nothing in the bill would interfere with the existing or future rights of foothill water agencies.

Mokelumne Diversions Map
Source: Foothill Conservancy & Upper Mokelumne Watershed Assessment and Planning Report, 2007

EBMUD’s position shifted over time, as they seemingly tried to accommodate their upstream partners without alienating the enviros. The district’s Board of Directors had previously supported limited protection for the Mokelumne, then voted to oppose Hancock’s bill because of language that would have constrained the agency’s ability to expand Pardee Reservoir and what they perceived as a flawed “stakeholder process” that excluded upstream water agencies. When the Pardee issue was resolved by amendment, the board endorsed the measure conditional on further amendments. Their new wish list, detailed in a June 26 letter to Hancock, asked for exclusion of the commercial Roaring Camp Resort from the wild and scenic designation and a commitment that the state would not seek federal wild and scenic status for the river. Then in a July 29 email, EBMUD spokesperson Abby Figueroa wrote: “The amendments we would still like to see are those that would conceptually address the concerns of the UMRWA”—not necessarily the specific list in the letter. Hancock was prepared to offer amendments if the bill had cleared the Committee.

The circumstances under which 1199 was placed in the Suspense File are unclear. According to the Appropriations Committee’s web site, any bill with an annual cost of more than $150,000 is sent to the Suspense File. Although no fiscal impact had been found for previous Wild and Scenic River bills and the counterpart Senate committee found none for 1199, Assembly Appropriations staff cited “unknown cost pressures,” potentially in the $50,000 to $100,000 range” for additional Integrated Regional Water Management Program (IRWMP) planning and “potential increased costs in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars range” for increased water costs for expanded facilities at Mule Creek State Prison near Ione. In a post-mortem press release, the enviros state that neither the Department of Water Resources nor the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had provided a fiscal analysis to the committee. Smith says the estimates came from Jack Gualco, a lobbyist for numerous water agencies including Amador County. Evans charges that the bill’s opponents “used a procedural strategy based on bogus fiscal impacts.”

When asked why 1199 was not brought up for consideration and what Gualco’s role was, Assemblyman Gatto responded by email: “The Appropriations Committee is the guardian of the public treasury. Before we authorize the expenditure of taxpayer funds, we weigh the cost and benefit of every bill. Here, the bill had substantial costs to the state and its taxpayers, and significant local opposition, with whom the sponsors of the bill declined to work. All bills before the Appropriations Committee are independently analyzed by specialized committee staff, the State’s Department of Finance, and then, of course, by committee members.Your sources are inaccurate.”

Photo by Steve Evans
Photo by Steve Evans

“Mr. Gatto’s reference to ‘significant local opposition,’ while correct, is a factor that has no bearing on the fiscal impacts of SB 1199 and so should not have been included as a part of the Appropriation Committee’s discussions,” says Smith. As for declining to work with that opposition: “The Senator’s amendments addressed all opponents’ concerns except the water agencies’ desire to have their projects exempted from review by the Secretary of the Department of Water Resources. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act requires this review to ensure that proposed projects will not adversely impact the free-flowing character and extraordinary values that make a river eligible for the Act’s special protections.” Such an exemption, she adds, would have made the Mokelumne “a Wild and Scenic River in Name Only.”

“Protection for the Mokelumne River deserved a straight up and down vote in the Assembly on its merits,” says Evans. “The bill’s demise, at least for now, is a classic example of politics triumphing over good public policy in the California Legislature.”

“I am very disappointed,” Hancock commented after 1199’s death by suspension. “However, I remain committed to the goals of designating portions of the river as Wild and Scenic and insuring that the East Bay continues to have a source of safe and clean water.” It is unclear at this point whether Hancock will reintroduce a Mokelumne bill next year.

Foothill Conservancy Perspective

Cecily Smith
Steve Evans

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About the author

Joe Eaton writes about endangered and invasive species, climate and ecosystem science, environmental history, and water issues for ESTUARY. He is also "a semi-obsessive birder" whose pursuit of rarities has taken him to many of California's shores, wetlands, and sewage plants.

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