The Mokelumne

At 8,000 feet in the Sierra, between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite Valley, twin miniature lakes gather the headwaters of the Mokelumne River, which provides the drinking water for the East Bay.  By the time the river finds its way into San Francisco Bay, the Mokelumne has touched on most of the biggest issues in California, and the nation: not just clean water, but preservation of forest, open space, organic farming, endangered species — and sacred sites.
Down to 4,000 feet, the watershed provides habitat for pine marten, Yosemite toad, and other rare animals protected by federal wilderness designation. It is here that grateful East Bay water users could go on pilgrimage to their snowmelt, amid the area’s granite canyons and remote old-growth forests. “This is an amazing place.” says a local conservationist. “Yosemite has nothing on Mokelumne Canyon.”
In the upper watershed, Pacific Gas & Electric operates the kind of hydroelectric facilities it wants to remove from regulation statewide, via bankruptcy proceedings. It has long wanted an unregulated subsidiary to operate dams at maximum profit to pay debts. That would provide incentive to flush or withhold water with little regard to ecosystems. In a similar spirit, speculators are awaiting a federal ruling on California’s lucrative long-term energy contracts. If upheld, they would provide incentive to build the array of natural gas power plants that are in the pipeline, awaiting financing.
Where the river winds down to private land at about 3,500 feet, the voracious Sierra Pacific Industries has begun clearcutting the Mokelumne’s slopes. Elsewhere in the range, the US Forest Service has chosen a management plan to modify such appetites, preserving declining species on its more than 11.5 million Sierra acres. But the plan, with its various loopholes and timber challenges, leaves an unanswered question, with the lives of California spotted owls, Pacific fishers, and rural towns in the balance: Does logging prevent or intensify forest fires?
At 700 feet, Pardee reservoir aqueducts pipe the “Southwest Fork” to the residents of the East Bay, where Contra Costa
County would like more water to build a sprawling 1,400-unit complex in Tassajara Valley. EBMUD must decide whether to supply the water — especially considering a possible drought. In Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District has faced a similar dilemma; it is poised to engage a private water speculator in a multi-million dollar water deal, bitterly opposed by environmentalists.
After feeding farmers in Lodi, the Mokelumne meets with the San Joaquin River, bearer of an oversalinized agricultural load, as author Gray Brechin points out. On the valley’s east side, a USGS survey found an array of contamination, including fertilizer-based nitrates at levels that frequently exceed drinking water standards. Miles to the south, in the San Gabriel Valley, working-class communities have won the right to sue private water suppliers over such contamination.
As the San Joaquin drains the 300-mile long valley, it carries the runoff from overstressed farmlands, including 2,000 to 5,000 acres of Bt cotton, entirely too close to organic-cotton plots. As Dan Rademacher reports, genetically engineered crops, even in test plots, can cross-pollinate natural crops, robbing farmers of their right to offer GE-free corn and canola. The next battleground will be wheat.
The Mokelumne, at its source the traditional territory of the Sierra Miwok, eventually drains to San Francisco Bay, which provided a rich life for their Ohlone relatives. Sacred mortuary sites at Coyote Hills and West Berkeley could be affected by pending development. In the latter, archaeologists have found everything from arrowheads to ritually buried coyotes — testimony to the wild, healthy, thriving historical communities by the bay — and to the reverence for the source of it all.
That reverence remains. When they returned to Shoshone Mountain, 69 years after the US closed off their land for nuclear testing, Paiute and Western Shoshone elders knew exactly what they would find — rock cairns marking vision quests and ceremonies that may date back 12,000 years. In fighting commercial development — in this case a large wind-energy farm — the tribes have renewed ancient ties: “We were here in the beginning, and we’re going to continue to be here.”
On the Gila River Reservation in Arizona, one tribal councilwoman has squared off against a different commercial development — a medical waste incinerator, the kind that activists shut down in Oakland. Those Bay Area-based activists have rallied behind the tribe, providing education and support for a larger vision of preventing air pollution — “Not in anyone’s back yard.”

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