It’s never too late to save a river

The old motto about running a river says, “Old people in boats never die, they only get in a small canoe.” And some never lose their passion for keeping the rivers wild.

Take, for example, the Stanislaus River in California. In the 1970s, people of all ages and abilities enjoyed running 13 miles of slopes bearing scary names like Widowmaker and Devil’s Staircase. Not far from Sacramento and San Francisco, the limestone canyon has provided renewal and adventure to people nearly year-round.

But in 1944, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation authorized the construction of the 625-foot New Melones Dam for the Stan Dam, though filling it would flood the beloved valley. Construction of the dam began in 1966, and enthusiastic opposition grew, leading to the emergence of the grassroots Friends of the River organization. Proponents argued that the smaller existing dam could meet the needs of flood control and energy production, without flooding the river’s wild extension.

Despite actions that ranged from citizen initiatives to lawsuits and even a positive Supreme Court ruling, the New Melones Dam was built.

As the water in the reservoir rose in 1979, Mark Dubois, co-founder of Friends of the River, chained himself to a bedrock below the elevated water line to force dam operators to stop filling. Fifteen-year-old Sue Knaup also went to work “to save wildlife day and night from trees and flooded islands.” But she could not save them all, and Dubois could not hold back the tank.

The river valley and historical prehistoric cultural sites were inundated.

Now, with the New Melones recording its fourth decade of broken promises to deliver water, flood control and energy production, hundreds of river defenders from the old campaign hope to restore Stan. In their teens and twenties then, and today in their 60s and 70s, they think the timing has never been better.

Now it’s a matter of ‘well, of course,’ says DuBois, vice president of the new nonprofit organization Restoring the Stanislaus River. “National momentum is growing to remove dams and expand economic and ecological floodplains.”

Knaup, the president and principal instigator of the new group, has moved its activism to the film industry. “When Mark wanted the story of Stanislaus to be told properly – in pictures – I offered to make a film about the fighting of the ’70s.”

The start of work on the film has reawakened their long-held dream of restoring the river, so now, members are proposing a full watershed approach: revegetating the upper river areas, clearing parts of the New Melones to keep reservoir levels low and working with farmers downstream. To protect flood plains.

The promotion of dismantling large dams attracts a lot of media attention. Think the Klamath River in California and Oregon, and the Snake and Columbia Rivers in Washington. The removal of small dams does not receive much fanfare, although about 1,100 small dams have collapsed in the past twenty years in the United States alone.

As California becomes drier, many people agree that the New Melons Dam must go. Only 26 percent full today, and the tank is near its capacity only five times since it was first filled. The power production capabilities, which are based on 40 years of streaming data, have never been realized. Even Home Office engineers admit they underestimated the river’s drought and demand cycles “too much.”

Roy Tennant, a former guide of the Stanislaus River and now secretary of the Stanislaus River Restoration, acknowledges that the successful restoration of the entire watershed “will take a lot of work and money…but we have to start while we are alive and have the passion to do it.”

Kevin Wolf, a former River Guide organizer for the 1970s campaign and current Treasurer to restore the Stanislaus River, says a billion-dollar ballot measures may be what it takes to transform the state’s water infrastructure, but “big ideas like removing levees start with small groups of people.” Unruly activists push ideas forward.”

Dubois, whose civic work in the 1970s inspired many river conservation efforts, adds that it is time to “fix the goodwill of the outdated era of damming — to restore the rich wild bounty that rivers have always had.”

As for Knaup, she says, “The healing has already begun as the film and the pressure to get the Stanislaus River back alive has begun.” And the river? “I have complete faith that she will know what to do.”

Becca Lawton is a contributor to The Book on The Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to stimulating a lively conversation about the West. A former guide and ranger of the Grand Canyon, she began as a guide and advocate for the Stanislaus River. Top photo: Lake New Melons. “This part of the Stanislaus River is usually held back by New Melons Lake (dam) and the California drought in 2014 gave us the opportunity to kayak this famous part of the river.” Credit: Zachary Collier/Flickr

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