Protecting California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers for 50 Years
When January’s atmospheric river barreled into California, it helped replenish our actual rivers. The next time you enjoy roaring whitewater or the silvery notes of a placid tributary, take a moment to appreciate the work and policies that protect the place. That watercourse could have been transformed into one of the state’s 1,500 reservoirs, a storage tank with rings of dead trees crawling up its sides. The fact that it still echoes with life is due to the work of a small group of thoughtful committed individuals. Ron Stork is one of them.
Stork has devoted over 50 years to preserving California’s wild rivers for future generations. He’s worked on flood management plans, urban conservation efforts, and drainage issues. He’s testified against dam construction, served on advisory boards and received an award from the governor on behalf of a community water forum he helped found twice. He’s participated in Congressional campaigns to designate wild and scenic rivers and helped create their management plans. If you’ve kayaked, canoed, swum, canyoneered or stood on the banks of a wild rushing river in California, chances are Stork had something to do with protecting it.
Stork grew up in Southern California, playing in ephemeral water courses before they were channelized and choking on polluted air that pre-dated catalytic converters. “At that time Southern California was, in retrospect, unlivable from smog,” Stork reflects. He moved away to attend UC Davis in Northern California, and was thrilled to breathe air that didn’t hurt his lungs. “I never went back to Southern California, the land of my youth, where nature was being warred upon by the Army Corps of Engineers.” In 1975 he graduated from UC Davis with highest honors.
“I was this freshly minted UC Davis Plant Science major with an understanding that the mission of civilization was to go and make the desert bloom by taming the waters and putting them to beneficial use,” Stork says. “But then I fell in love with this river, El Rio de Nuestra Señora Merced, the River of Our Lady of Mercy, the Merced.”
“When that river became threatened by a number of hydro projects and a large dam and reservoir, something switched in my head and I no longer had the mission to make the desert bloom,” explains Stork. “I felt a responsibility to take care of this river.” Traveling around the state, he soon recognized other rivers that deserved protection.
“How can you not fall in love with these Sierra river canyons, strewn with wild flowers on these beautiful spring days with blue skies and puffy white clouds?” Stork rhapsodizes. “The sparkling sounds and smells and feel of a living river, it just moves you in ways that are beyond intellectual understanding.”
In 1977 he joined the Sierra Club where he met a group of people who felt a responsibility to steward the lands and rivers of Sierra National Forest. Some of them worked with Friends of the River (FOR), an organization that had coalesced over the fight to keep the Stanislaus River flowing free. Though their efforts failed – New Melones Dam created a lifeless reservoir that buried a beloved section of whitewater – the gang of river lovers kept fighting to protect other wild water throughout the state. Stork began volunteering with FOR in the early 1980s and joined the staff in 1987.
Through this coalition, Stork met mountaineer and conservationist George Whitmore, a member of the first team to climb El Cap. Whitmore, who died of COVID-19 complications on New Year’s Day this year, became Stork’s mentor. “George was a gentle, sweet, soft-spoken man of fierce convictions,” says Stork. “I helped him work on wilderness additions and dam fighting; it was the beginning of forest planning that involved wild and scenic rivers.”
The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, passed by Congress in 1968, recognized that sections of the nation’s rivers contained “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values.” According to the act, those sections of rivers “shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and … their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act recognized the inherent value of a free flowing river; it was like establishing a National Park system for water, though protected waterways may still be impacted by other land and water uses like dams and diversions. As of 2019, over 13,000 miles of 226 rivers are protected in 41 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. This is less than one half of one percent of the nations rivers. By contrast, over 75,000 dams have altered the course of 600,000 miles of rivers, or about 20% of the total river miles in the country.
After a hard battle, California passed its own Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1972. Initial passage protected the North Coast rivers: the Smith River and all of its tributaries; the Klamath River and major tributaries, including the Scott, Salmon, and Trinity Rivers; the Eel River and major tributaries; and segments of the American River.
“Creating the state Wild and Scenic Rivers System was radical because it essentially cut off half of the yield for Governor Pat Brown’s water project, which was expected to deliver 4.2 million acre feet of water from Northern to Southern California,” explains Stork. “California may be considered part of the left coast, but water interests are very powerful here, and they’ve never really forgotten that initial setback.”
FOR hasn’t forgotten that initial victory or any of the ones that followed. Their library is stuffed with files and documents detailing defeated dam proposals. “We maintain that library, at considerable expense because river conservation battles never really end.”
A case in point is the US Bureau of Reclamation’s attempt to raise the 600-foot tall Shasta Dam. Adding 18.5 feet to the dam would increase the storage capacity of Shasta Lake – already California’s largest reservoir – by about 200 billion gallons. It would also inundate fish habitat and culturally significant indigenous sites on about two thirds of a mile of the McCloud River, which has a special protection under the state’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
The Bureau of Reclamation needs a non-federal cost-sharing partner to cover 50% of the cost, but California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act prohibits state or local agencies from working on any project that negatively impacts protected rivers. So while Fresno-based Westlands Water District was happy to support the project initially, thanks to litigation brought by FOR, they’ve been barred from doing so. Now the feds are scrambling to find a non-federal, non-state agency that can cover half of the projected $1.4 billion price tag of raising the Shasta Dam.
“Legislation we had worked on and passed in relative obscurity decades ago was pivotal in handing the dam builders another setback in 2019 and 2020,” explains Stork. “The daily in the trenches work to stop dams, to help protect, restore or recover rivers pays off,” Stork says. “It may not pay off immediately. It may take decades. But the ground work that we lay is the groundwork that another generation can build upon.”
Stork is proud of his long career and the free flowing rivers he has helped protect, but he is also concerned about the future. “One of the things I learned early on is the truth of that Margaret Mead quotation: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has,’” explains Stork. “But if there aren’t a few thoughtful committed individuals, the work goes undone.”
FRIENDS OF THE RIVER (FOR)
Some say John Muir died of a broken heart after failing to protect his beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley from the O’Shaughnessy Dam. But when a rag tag group of rafting guides, river lovers and budding lobbyists failed in their efforts to protect the Stanislaus River from the New Melones Dam, they reorganized to one of the strongest river advocacy groups in the nation. Friends of the River (FOR) works in boardrooms and backwoods to protect the wild rivers of California, and there hasn’t been another major river dam built in the state since New Melones.
“We’ve effectively ended the era of big dam building in California,” says Eric Wesselman, Executive Director of FOR. “New Melones was the poster child for why that ended; dams don’t pencil out economically, they destroy the environment and they don’t deliver the water supply they promised.” FOR has helped protect over 2,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers in California over the past 48 years.
As FOR approaches their 50th anniversary, they recognize that their job will only get harder as climate change increases pressure on already strained river systems. “To keep protecting rivers we need to revolutionize California water,” explains Wesselman. “Over our next 50 years, we will advance climate resilient and sustainable solutions for California that allow us to meet our water needs without destroying more rivers.”
Towards that end, FOR will devote more resources to water conservation and water efficiency measures. “We will need to start recycling water, capturing and reusing storm water,” says Wesselman. “Reduce, reuse, recycle can be applied to water as well. Sure there’s an ‘ick factor,’ but nature has been recycling water forever, we are already drinking treated waste water!”