A Ward's Ferry Bridge Take-out Worthy Of The Wild & Scenic Tuolumne River
By: Evan Stafford
The U.S. Department of the Interior has issued Bureau of Land Management (BLM) negotiated 4(e) conditions that ensure vital improvements at Ward’s Ferry Bridge, the take-out for the iconic Merals Pool run on the Wild & Scenic Tuolumne River. During the hydropower relicensing process, Section 4(e) of the Federal Powers Act allows mandatory federal agency conditions necessary for the protection and use of BLM land. The boundary for Don Pedro Hydropower Project, owned by Modesto & Turlock Irrigation Districts (Districts), includes BLM land along the Ward’s Ferry Bridge take-out. Far from an ideal take-out, Ward’s Ferry is the site of steep eroding pedestrian trails, rampart graffiti and a vandalized bathroom. Despite these conditions, the Districts, have long questioned the need and scope of improvements at this take-out for the Wild & Scenic Tuolumne River.
To understand the full extent of the Districts’ opposition to improvements at Ward’s Ferry Bridge it is important to recollect a few relicensing milestones. In 2011, in what is called the Pre-Application Document the Districts stated the take-out was not a project facility and did not require an extensive study. Two years later in 2013, after a request by the Conservation Groups, including American Whitewater, the National Park Service, and BLM, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission required the Districts to complete a Ward’s Ferry Bridge Take-Out study. The study concluded that improving access was technically feasible. The Districts then issued a Draft License Application which proposed a single 10-foot wide road down to the river’s edge on river right. This proposal fell well short of the stakeholders vision for comprehensive improvements on both sides of the river. In the Final License Application released in 2017, the Districts abandoned plans for a road on river right and proposed a booming platform with room for 2 truck mounted cranes on river left with a new bathroom on river right. This proposal failed to address access to the river’s edge and funneled use to one side of the river. BLM, however, filed a preliminary 4(e) condition for Ward’s Ferry that included provisions for 6 simultaneous all water level vehicle access points on either side of the river, hardened pedestrian trails to the river's edge, 15-20 parking spaces and personnel on-site during the permit season. The Districts then filed a challenge to BLM’s condition in what is termed a “trial-type hearing” before an administrative law judge that challenged the comprehensive improvents to the take-out.
In response to the Districts’ trial-type hearing request, American Whitewater and our colleagues at Tuolumne River Trust, ARTA, Sierra Mac, Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Friends of the River, OARS and All Outdoors filed a legal intervention and started preparations for a day in court. This intervention served both to assert stakeholder interest and give leverage to BLM’s preliminary condition for upgrades at Ward’s Ferry Bridge Take-out. Eventually, under pressure of a looming costly trial and an uncertain outcome from a single administrative law judge BLM and the Districts agreed to a 120-day stay of the trial-type hearing proceedings to exclusively negotiate a settlement. This move effectively removed stakeholders like American Whitewater and our partners from the negotiating table. However, this did not stop our stakeholder coalition from continued engagement with BLM. The coalition submitted a letter to BLM which outlined desired stakeholder elements including 10-foot-wide pedestrian trails to the river’s edge; a ramp sufficient to allow turnaround and two vehicles to simultaneously access the water’s edge; 2 new ADA vault toilets; an elevated hoisting platform suitable to support three truck-mounted cranes and staffing of the facility to ensure orderly and safe use. The NGO coalition also kept in contact with Este Stifel, BLM Central California District Manager and Bill Haigh, BLM Mother Lode Office Field Manager. BLM in turn acknowledged the NGO coalition requests and committed to keep them in mind during negotiations with the Districts.
On August 23, 2018 the Department of the Interior filed revised 4(e) conditions that include BLM’s negotiated condition for Ward’s Ferry Bridge Take-out and the Districts officially withdrew their request for a trial-type hearing. Following are the improvements required as part of BLM’s revised condition. This will become part of the new project license once a new license order is issued by FERC for the Don Pedro Hydropower Project. These elements of the take-out will be maintained by the Districts for the life time of the license which could be 30-50 years:
- A Wards Ferry/Tuolumne River Take-Out Management Plan to be reviewed and approved by BLM before submission to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
- Removal of the existing vault toilet and construction of new ADA-compliant two-vault toilet to be cleaned and maintained by the Districts during the May 1- October 15 period.
- Enhancement and maintenance of 4-8 parking spaces that will include hardened surfaces, parking space indicators and berms/barriers to prevent vehicle entry into the river.
- Wards Ferry Take-out personnel to coordinate the safe and effective use of the resources. The Districts can provide the personnel themselves or use annual funding to contract with Tuolumne County or other appropriate entities.
River Right Improvements
- Construction and maintenance of a 10-12’ wide gravel vehicular service road extending 250-350 feet upstream of Wards Ferry Bridge and terminating at a turn-around sufficient to allow two axle vehicles to execute three-point turns.
- Improvement and maintenance of pedestrian access trails. These improvements will include 10’ wide constructed and/or hardened trails from the service road to 830 feet elevation and below 830 feet 6’ wide constructed and/or hardened trails to the river’s edge at 770 feet elevation.
- Hardening of the interface between Wards Ferry Road and the new service road to permit bus/vehicle capable of holding 20-30 passengers to pull off Wards Ferry Road.
River Left Improvements
- Construction and maintenance of an elevated hoisting platform 300 feet upstream of Wards Ferry Bridge that will support up to three truck-mounted cranes and associated equipment vehicles.
- Construction and maintenance of a 12’ wide access road from Wards Ferry Road to the elevated platform.
- Improvement or creation, and maintenance of pedestrian access trails to the river. These improvements will include 10’ wide constructed and/or hardened trails from the platform to 830 feet elevation and below 830 feet 6’ wide constructed and/or hardened trails to the river’s edge at 770 feet elevation.
Note that BLM and the Districts characterized the facilities on river left as more appropriate for commercial use and the facilities on river right for private use. However, that will not preclude any paddler from using the improved egress on either side.
American Whitewater would like to recognize the hard work of BLM in negotiating substantial improvements for Ward’s Ferry Bridge Take-out. As stakeholders we will continue to advocate for some improvements to the condition during the remaining relicensing process. This includes pedestrian trails wider than 6’ to the river’s edge, more parking and stronger language for keeping the take-out free of large woody debris. We will also pursue opportunities with the County and State to augment the facilities at Ward’s Ferry Bridge in the future. Overall, American Whitewater believes the improvements mandated by the revised 4(e) condition will one day provide a take-out worthy of the Wild & Scenic Tuolumne River.
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