In the quintessential California guidebook The Best Whitewater in California, Chuck Stanley describes the first descent of the Rubicon by he and his intrepid teammates, Lars Holbeck and Richard Montgomery. He also describes the other paddlers who thought about running the Rubicon before them, saying “Many a group of brave paddlers considered the challenge, some even attempted the run, but all failed. It wasn’t a lack of courage, skill, guts, determination, fortitude, valor, intrepidness, resoluteness, audacity, prowess, or moral righteousness that kept them from success. No, it wasn’t that; it was a lack of water.”
As Stanley eloquently put it, “As we all know, rivers are made of water and rocks; this river always has rocks, and it seldom has water.” Water does occasionally flow through the Rubicon, but only when the Lower Hell Hole Dam is spilling. The Dam is just one piece of many that make up the puzzle of the Middle Fork American River Hydroelectric Project (FERC #2079), maintained by the Placer County Water Agency (“PCWA”).
The Middle Fork American and Rubicon rivers provide world-class whitewater boating opportunities – when there’s water in them. The rivers begin in the western Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California and are home to stunning scenery, steep canyons and abundant wildlife. The Rubicon River is one of the main tributaries to the Middle Fork American in the upper part of the watershed, and begins in the Desolation Wilderness near Clyde Lake in the Eldorado National Forest. The Middle Fork American’s headwaters begin on the south face of Granite Chief and is eligible for designation as a Wild and Scenic River. It flows 62 miles until its confluence with the North Fork American near the town of Auburn and Folsom Lake, where it later joins with the South Fork American and makes its way as the American River to Sacramento.
The Middle Fork American Hydroelectric Project is due for a new FERC license in 2013. The Project was completed in 1963 to provide electricity and water supply storage for Northern California. The project stores and diverts the Middle Fork American and Rubicon Rivers through a complex system of reservoirs, tunnels and 5 powerhouses run by Pacific Gas & Electric (“PG&E”). The project has two main storage reservoirs and dams – the French Meadows on the Middle Fork American, and Hell Hole on the Rubicon – which divert most of the flow out of the rivers near their headwaters. There are five additional medium to small dams and reservoirs in the project. The downstream end of the project is marked by the Oxbow Powerhouse, just above where the Middle Fork and Rubicon Rivers meet at the Ralson Afterbay. The Oxbow Powerhouse releases daily peaking flows into the Middle Fork American River, and these flows are used extensively for commercial rafting and private boating trips.
As with many river systems impacted by hydroelectric operations, the Project’s dams often impose a spill or nill flow pattern. Spill flows are not subject to ramping rate requirements. As a result, when water spills over the dams, it can be quickly cut off again, stranding riparian species including fish and frogs. On the other side, minimum instream flows within the project area range between 2.5 cfs and 23 cfs, or the natural flow – whichever is less. These flows have not been adequate to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
Since 2006, American Whitewater has participated in relicensing negotiations and advocated for a flow pattern that mimics the natural hydrograph by tapering flow off gradually, which emulates a “snowmelt recession” pattern. Fortunately, PCWA has been willing to work with AW and other stakeholders to make significant improvements in the new license conditions.
As we work with our partners to restore a healthier flow pattern to the Middle Fork American and Rubicon Rivers, we also have worked hard to have flow information be more readily available. We are excited to see that our efforts have already paid off. Until 2010, determining flows on the Rubicon required driving to the put-in and seeing how the river was flowing that day. Thanks to our efforts and participation in the relicensing process, flow information for the Rubicon has been made available to the public. Traditionally, agreements to improve gauges and publish flow information come only as part of a final relicensing agreement and are implemented after the fact. Getting this information before the new license is a huge milestone.
The Middle Fork American Hydroelectric Relicensing is the 20th that American Whitewater has participated in. In 2010, we attended negotiation meetings almost weekly. We will continue to be an active stakeholder until the project is relicensed in 2013, and likely beyond into implementation.
For more information, visit the PCWA Middle Fork American Project Relicensing Page
The contacts below include staff and volunteers working on this project. Make sure you are logged in if you wish to join the group.
|Dave Steindorf||Chico CA||Details...|