.EBMUD Has Yet Another Option Besides a New Mokelumne Dam

The water district is ignoring another agency's request to partner on its project while pushing ahead with its plan for a new dam on the Mokelumne River.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District has come under intense
criticism for its plan to build a giant new dam in the Sierra Foothills
that would ruin a stretch of the scenic Mokelumne River. The dam would
be unnecessary if East Bay MUD simply forced its heaviest water users
to conserve more water, as was reported here a few weeks ago. But there
is at least one more reason why the new dam is unneeded. A neighboring
water agency is planning a more environmentally friendly expansion
project and it wants a partner. Yet East Bay MUD has expressed
virtually no interest in the project.

The Contra Costa Water District, which serves Concord, Martinez, and
eastern Contra Costa County along with parts of Pleasant Hill and
Walnut Creek, wants to expand its Los Vaqueros Reservoir, on the
eastern side of Mount Diablo. The current reservoir holds about 100,000
acre-feet of water, and the water district plans to expand it to
160,000 acre-feet or even 275,000 acre-feet, depending on how many
partners it can find. The project has generated some opposition in the
environmental community, but nothing like the backlash East Bay MUD has
experienced with its Mokelumne River dam proposal.

Yet East Bay MUD has effectively blown off requests by the Contra
Costa Water District to become its partner. In fact, East Bay MUD
didn’t even study the Las Vaqueros Reservoir expansion as a potential
option for its water needs through the year 2040. “East Bay MUD needs
to take another look at the Los Vaqueros,” said David Nesmith,
coordinator of the Environmental Water Caucus and a member of the
Sierra Club’s Bay Chapter Water Committee, which opposes the Mokelumne
dam proposal.

To be clear, Nesmith and other environmentalists would actually
prefer that East Bay MUD meet its future water needs by promoting more
water conservation, and driving down the demand for water by
significantly raising prices for water guzzlers. But they believe that
East Bay MUD should have at least studied the Los Vaqueros plan as part
of the agency’s official environmental impact report on its future
water needs. Instead, the agency chose to pursue the new Mokelumne
River dam. The agency’s board of directors likely will vote on the
final report in August, including whether to go forward with the
Mokelumne dam proposal (for more on the dam and what it would do, see
Sierra Water Grab,” 4/29).

The difference between the two dams is more than simply location.
The Mokelumne dam would enlarge Pardee Reservoir by destroying a
beautiful section of a river popular for its fishing, swimming, and
kayaking. But there is no comparable river at risk in the proposed Los
Vaqueros expansion because that reservoir is what’s known as an
off-river storage facility, which is filled with water diverted from
elsewhere. Hence, a new dam at Los Vaqueros would enlarge that
reservoir’s storage capacity without necessarily destroying a wild
river in the process.

Alex Coate, East Bay MUD’s director of water and natural resources,
says the agency chose not to seriously study the Los Vaqueros expansion
plan because when East Bay MUD began its planning process last summer,
there was too much uncertainty about the Los Vaqueros proposal. “At the
time, there was very little information on the project,” he said.

But in a letter to East Bay MUD last June, Leah Orloff, water
resources manager for the Contra Costa Water District, disputed Coate’s
assertion. She contended that the Los Vaqueros proposal was “more
advanced” than other projects East Bay MUD was seriously considering,
including a large desalination project that the agency is still
interested in pursuing. Orloff also reinvited East Bay MUD to partner
with them. In addition, last month Orloff sent the district a letter
noting that the Los Vaqueros environmental impact report was now public
and that the expansion project was moving forward. She again urged East
Bay MUD officials to look more closely at partnering with her agency.
“We think there is true potential to explore this,” she said in an
interview.

Nesmith notes that East Bay MUD also has been acting hypocritically
about its plans. After a firestorm erupted over the Mokelumne River dam
proposal, East Bay MUD officials began telling foothills residents in
recent weeks that the dam is only in its early stages and might be
relocated, resized, or never even built. In other words, they’re
telling foothills residents that their proposed dam is even less
certain than the Los Vaqueros expansion project, while telling the
Contra Costa Water District that its project is too sketchy to take
seriously. “Their rationale just doesn’t hold,” Nesmith said. “They’re
trying to have it both ways.”

Alameda and the Dam

Locally, meanwhile, some activists are questioning whether East Bay
MUD board member Doug Linney can be objective when he votes on the
Mokelumne dam proposal later this summer. Linney, you see, is a paid
political consultant for SunCal, which wants to build a massive
5,000-home development on the former Alameda Naval Air Station at
Alameda Point that’s going to require a lot of water. “If he’s going to
be making votes on this dam, I question whether he has a conflict,
because 5,000 or 6,000 homes are going to need water,” said David
Howard, an opponent of the development.

But Linney insists that his paid political work for SunCal will not
affect his vote. “The only question for me will be how we plan to
accommodate future growth in this district in an environmentally
sustainable way,” he said in an interview. Because of questions posed
by Eco Watch, Linney said he consulted with East Bay MUD’s attorney and
was told that he has no conflict of interest. The reason, he said, is
because East Bay MUD is legally required to provide water for the new
development regardless of whether the dam is built or not. In other
words, the fate of the housing development is not tied to that of the
dam.

Currently, SunCal is gathering petition signatures for a November
ballot initiative. To build the development, SunCal must convince
Alameda voters to award the company an exemption to a 1970s antidensity
law that only allows about 1,800 homes on Alameda Point. Linney, who
represents Alameda on the East Bay MUD board, said he expects that
SunCal will pay him more than $10,000 this year for his political
consultancy work.

Dam opponents who hope that Linney will ultimately side with them
also said they were not concerned about his advocacy for the Alameda
Point housing project — or his objectivity. “I don’t think it
would influence his vote,” said Katherine Evatt of the Foothill
Conservancy, which is fighting to save the Mokelumne. “I think he is a
person of integrity, and he’ll make a decision based on what he thinks
is best.”

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