In a major victory for Sierra Nevada river advocates, the East Bay's largest water district said Monday it will not enlarge its reservoir in the foothills and instead consider investing in a less controversial reservoir near Brentwood.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District had considered raising its dam on the Mokelumne River to secure water in droughts.
But the plan proved highly controversial, especially in the Sierra foothills, where river advocates and local residents said it would inundate a popular kayak run and a stretch of river the federal government has deemed suitable for designating "wild and scenic," the highest level of environmental protection under the law.
"This is a huge win for the Mokelumne River," said Steve Evans of Friends of the River, one of three environmental groups that sued over the district's plan. "They would have flooded a mile or more of the Mokelumne."
The district plans to reissue an environmental document on Tuesday that drops that option.
Instead, the district now concludes that if it needs more surface water storage it will consider buying into the Contra Costa Water District's Los Vaqueros Reservoir near Brentwood.
Unlike EBMUD's Pardee Dam, which was the tallest in the world when it was completed in 1929, Los Vaqueros is in an off-stream valley where it stores water pumped from the Delta. The Contra Costa district is enlarging it by 60 percent, a project that drew almost no
"What changed, really, is we went back ... and spent a lot of time looking at Los Vaqueros and talking to CCWD," said Richard Sykes, EBMUD's director of water and natural resources.
Also, Sykes said, the market to buy water has improved in the two years since the original environmental study was done and a Bay Area-wide pilot plan to build a water desalination plant has showed promise. Taken together, those factors mean the district does not need to consider enlarging Pardee.
Two years ago, the Oakland-based water district released a $6 million, 32-month water supply plan that concluded it would either need to invest in desalination or raise Pardee Dam if it were to meet its goal of ensuring its 1.3 million customers are spared from more than 15 percent water rationing in droughts between now and 2040.
Friends of the River, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and the Foothill Conservancy sued, saying the district had not disclosed the harm that would be done by raising the dam and that it had not considered other options.
In a court ruling in April, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley ruled the water district needed to revise its study because it failed to disclose the damage raising the dam would do to recreational river users and Native American uses of the river, and that it failed to disclose that inundation would cut off an evacuation route for some locals. Frawley also criticized the district for failing to consider investing in Los Vaqueros.
Evans, of Friends of the River, said river advocates would like to see Congress designate the Mokelumne River as wild and scenic.
But EBMUD board president John Coleman said the district likely would maintain its position that it supports such a designation only outside the area that could be inundated if the dam is raised.
In 20 years or more, the district could decide to raise the dam, he said.
"That's not doing justice to our ratepayers," Coleman said.
The district will accept public comments on the draft study through Jan. 27. Its board could adopt the plan in March.
Environmental groups are hoping the federal government will give its highest protection status to a stretch of the Mokelumne River near Par-