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A Victory for the San Joaquin River Gorge

Posted: 07/08/2020
by Theresa Simsiman

American Whitewater efforts, funded by a Conservation Alliance grant, to protect the San Joaquin River Gorge received a big boost with news that the proposed Temperance Flat Dam is effectively dead due to its exorbitant cost. This dam proposal threatened to drown 18 miles of river including the entire San Joaquin River Gorge. Proponents of this project had to provide final costs as a condition of receiving $171 million in funds necessary to initiate the project from the Proposition One, Water Storage Investment Program. A recently-completed draft analysis for the Temperance Flat Authority pegged the cost of water provided by a new dam at $9000 per acre-foot of water over the 50-year capital cost repayment period. To compare, when this new dam was first conceived water in California was estimated to cost an average of $70 per acre-foot. Overall, this cost analysis backs up statements made by American Whitewater in the 2018 film You Can't Dam Your Way to Paradise - "All the dams that make sense to be built on the San Joaquin River Gorge have already been built. If they were economically viable, they would have been built a long time ago." 

Now that proponents of the Temperance Flat Dam have come to the same conclusion we did on the exceedingly poor economics of the project, where do we go from here? The answer is simple, we continue full steam ahead to permanently protect the remarkable cultural, recreational and natural wonders found within this spectacular gorge through support of a National Wild and Scenic River Campaign. In 2014, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recommended this river segment for addition to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System but the dam proposal prevented any further progress. As early as 2018 when it became clear a dam proposal was stalling, American Whitewater shifted focus from the failing Temperance Flat Dam proposal to a vision of a Wild and Scenic San Joaquin River Gorge.

Towards this effort, American Whitewater continues coalition building for support of a Wild & Scenic campaign in partnership with Friends of the River, California Wilderness Coalition, Fresno Building Healthy Communities, and the California Outdoor Alliance. We are enhancing recreational opportunities through the hydropower relicensing process of Pacific Gas & Electric's Kerckhoff Project on the San Joaquin River. And in a new partnership, American Whitewater is providing assistance to the North Fork Mono Tribe in efforts to reestablish and map a monumental historic landmark, the Mono Trail along the San Joaquin River Gorge. Through these efforts we are building an inclusive coalition that includes diverse voices and cultural perspectives that extend well beyond the whitewater paddling community.

Dreams of building new dams die hard and we will remain vigilant if the idea for Temperance Flat Dam emerges in the future. However, now that the proponents of the project have confirmed the poor economics we originally identified, we are confident that the future of this river will be in a conservation status.

Photo by Darin McQuoid

Theresa Simsiman
Sacramento, CA