Long Live the Kings

In 1987 the idea of damming one of the nation's grandest river canyons seems archaic and outrageous. Yet that is what could happen to the lower Kings River unless Congress acts soon to protect the Kings from a small group of farmers whose thirst for ever more water seems insatiable.

About half a day's drive from both Los Angeles and San Francisco, the south fork of the Kings River courses out of the Sierra Nevada and Kings Canyon National Park through one of the deepest canyons in North America. At one point the river flows 8,240 feet beneath the summit of Spanish Mountain. From its headwaters near the Sierra crest to Pine Flat Dam above Fresno, the river falls 11,449 feet--the greatest undammed drop of any river in the United States. The Kings is the largest of California's wild trout fisheries, designated by the state Fish and Game Commission.

Flowing through federally held property and bordered by a national trail, the Kings is an unspoiled area readily accessible to more than 15 million Californians for a variety of recreation activities. By any measure the lower Kings is a prime candidate for inclusion in the nation's Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

Too often gushing waters and towering canyon walls mean only one thing to farming and water-development interests, however: a grand site for a dam. The Kings River Conservation District, a consortium of 28 San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts with a farming population of about 75,000, is studying proposals to build a 510-foot-high dam that would flood more than 11 miles of the lower Kings River. The area to be inundated, of course, is the region most popular with recreationists from throughout California.

Economic justification for the Rodgers Crossing dam and reservoir is dubious under the best of juggled figures. When weighed against the recreation and aesthetic value of the lower Kings to all of California and the nation, there is no contest. The dam must not be built.

Congress, therefore, should give urgent priority to the passage of a bill sponsored by Rep. Richard H. Lehman (D-Sanger) to incorporate 92.5 miles of the south and middle forks of the Kings into the national wild-rivers system. Lehman has 111 co-sponsors for his legislation, and passage in the House of Representatives seems assured. The Senate is another matter, however. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) opposes legislation before another feasibility study of Rodgers Crossing Dam is completed. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) has not yet endorsed the bill or decided whether to sponsor it in the Senate. Their support is critical.

The Kings River Conservation District and other agencies have studied the feasibility of a Rodgers Crossing Dam seven times since 1965. Even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a past master at making uneconomic water projects look good, concluded in 1972 that the dam was not economically feasible.

Virtually every drop of the Kings is now captured in most years for irrigation and hydroelectric power use, largely by the KRCD's Pine Flat Dam. The new dam would develop only 45,600 acre-feet of new irrigation water, a fraction of that needed to compensate for the farmers' improvident depletion of groundwater aquifers. At the same time, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Central Valley Project, which serves the San Joaquin Valley, has many times that much water that it cannot sell. The dam ostensibly would be paid for by the sale of electric power for which there is no certain market at the prices that the district has forecast.

In sum, Rodgers Crossing would be a turkey even if the recreation value of the river was ignored. But it cannot be ignored. Going into the 21st Century, water projects cannot be judged just on the basis of acre-feet of water, which often irrigates subsidized surplus crops, or of kilowatts of power generated. Business and industrial leaders and makers of public policy say that the future of California is in continued growth. A population of 27 million, going on 30 million, with increasing leisure time and money, requires the outlet of natural recreation areas provided by the state's mountains and deserts. Recreation also is a growing, vital factor in California's economy.

The dam-builders can conduct all the feasibility studies they want of Rodgers Crossing Dam, but the balance sheet will always come up with the same bottom line: The Kings River should be saved, because it is the right thing to do.

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