This is a river so wild and remote that few people have heard of it. Fewer still have seen it. No dams block it. But now the free-flowing Clavey River is poised to become California’s newest environmental cause.
Kayakers, fishermen and naturalists say the Clavey, which rushes for 30 miles through the mountains west of Yosemite National Park, is a spectacular river with world-class rapids, wild trout and a thriving ecosystem of native species.
But to the Turlock Irrigation District, the Clavey’s rugged, narrow canyon is an ideal place to build a 413-foot-tall dam that would generate electricity for homes, farms and canneries in the San Joaquin Valley.
If it is built, the Clavey Dam would be the 10th-highest in the state. Unlike nearly all big dams in the Sierra Nevada, it would not bring water to farms and cities or prevent floods. Most of the river would be diverted through an 11-mile tunnel to produce only electricity--mainly to run air-conditioners on hot summer days in farming towns such as Turlock and Ceres.
One of the last free-flowing rivers in the Sierra, the Clavey has been protected from most human intrusion by its steep canyon walls. Nearly all of the river--named after an early rancher in the region--is inaccessible by road as it drops 8,000 feet from the Emigrant Wilderness to where it meets the Tuolumne River just east of Groveland.
“It’s a beautiful, self-contained river system,” said rancher Wally Anker, a descendant of two of the oldest pioneer families in the area. “It is the only place I know of that is still the way it was at the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago.”
But with the Turlock Irrigation District pushing for federal licensing of the dam, the isolated canyon is becoming a central battleground in the long-running fight for preservation of the Sierra’s natural features.
With the rallying cry of “Save the Clavey,” more than a dozen environmental, fishing and rafting groups have joined in a campaign to block federal approval of the $345-million project.
The Tuolumne River Preservation Trust, an umbrella organization that includes the Sierra Club and Friends of the River, hopes to put the Clavey on the map by promoting it as a symbol of the pristine wilderness that so often has been lost to development in California.
“This river is the most endangered in the state,” said Johanna Thomas, acting executive director of the San Francisco-based preservation group, as she stood on a boulder-strewn bank of the Clavey. “A hundred years ago, there were a lot of streams like this. Now there aren’t.”
For the small utility district, based 45 miles away in Turlock, the plan to build the dam boils down to a matter of economics.
District officials say the venture would provide the cheapest source of energy they can find and give them a measure of independence from the big power companies that sell them energy.
In this era of heightened environmental sensitivity, the district has attempted to cast its proposal in the most ecologically benign terms--stressing that hydroelectric generation is a clean, non-polluting source of energy.
Nearly 20% of the project’s cost would go toward mitigating its environmental damage, district officials said. That includes buying more than 1,000 acres elsewhere for habitat preservation and putting a natural surface on the dam’s crest so that deer will feel comfortable crossing it.
“The district is prepared to spend a great deal of money to do things to protect the environment,” said Joe Marcotte, the district’s general manager. “There are certain times of year that the river won’t be the same, but that’s kind of in the eye of the beholder.”
Project manager John Mills contends that the dam and the district’s plans for management of river flows and water temperatures would make the Clavey a better home for wild trout than the habitat that nature provided.
“What’s good for fish is not this natural phenomenon,” Mills said. “The basic assumption that it is better if man leaves it alone does not stand up under scrutiny.”
The project’s major dam, 20 miles upstream from the confluence of the Tuolumne and Clavey rivers, would create a 2.5-mile-long reservoir. Weirs and intake pipes on three tributaries of the Clavey would divert water to the lake.
An 11-mile tunnel drilled through the canyon’s granite walls would take the water to an underground power generating plant. Finally, an 80-foot dam would create a smaller reservoir to hold back the water and meter it back into the Clavey more than a mile above its confluence with the Tuolumne.
Once it begins operating, the power plant would run for only a few hours a day during the spring and summer, providing electricity at peak times when customers’ desire for air conditioning places the demand on the utility, district officials said. The district now produces 35% of the power it sells to its 60,000 customers. With the project, that figure would rise to between 40% and 50%.
“Our studies show it is a good economic resource,” Marcotte said.
To people who have hiked, fished and kayaked the river, the power project would destroy what is special about the Clavey.
The dam would hold back the heavy spring flows that helped carve out the gorge and that continue each year to scour the river bed. The reservoirs would flood hundreds of acres of land, destroying the ecological balance of the canyon, naturalists say.
The Clavey’s white-water rapids, which expert kayakers consider among the most challenging on the continent, would disappear. River rafters worry that the water diversion also would reduce flows over Clavey Falls, a famous rapids on the Tuolumne River just below the confluence of the two rivers.
“Time and circumstance have collaborated to create this unique river system,” said Pat Stone, a former botany teacher from Jamestown who has visited the Clavey all his life and joined the campaign to save it. “As surely as I am talking to you, that dam will kill the river.”
The fate of the Clavey project rests primarily with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has jurisdiction over new hydroelectric projects. A decision is likely by 1995.
Other state and federal agencies must also give their approval, including the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Fish and Game, which designated the Clavey as one of the state’s few wild trout streams.
The Turlock Irrigation District has been trying for nearly two decades to build a hydroelectric project in the Sierra. It was among a number of utilities that sought to build a dam on the Tuolumne in the early 1980s. That project was defeated when Congress reached a compromise in 1984 declaring a portion of the Tuolumne “wild and scenic.”
A clause in the compromise, however, said nothing in the law would preclude construction of a dam on the Clavey, and the Turlock district immediately began planning a project for the smaller river.
The district applied for a license seven years ago and sank $8 million into the project. Now, district officials say they feel betrayed by environmental groups who are opposing the dam.
But environmentalists say the 1984 compromise was not a blank check allowing the Turlock district to build whatever it wants on the Clavey. They say the agreement envisioned much smaller power generating systems on the Clavey that would not alter the river environment.
Now, the Tuolumne River Preservation Trust is pushing for legislation that would give the Clavey the same wild and scenic protection granted to part of the Tuolumne. The river advocates also plan to mount a campaign hoping to persuade Turlock ratepayers that the Clavey project will drive up their utility bills as much as 20%.
Part of the environmentalist campaign is to create public support by organizing raft trips down the Tuolumne to its confluence with the Clavey, and hikes into the canyon.
“It’s a place that’s still pristine,” said river guide Mark Hayden, one of the few people who have kayaked the Clavey’s dangerous rapids. “It’s a piece of old California. You get the feeling maybe we’re the first ones who stepped here.”
On a recent tour, the preservation group brought a variety of potential backers, including executives of the Odwalla juice company, who plan to put a label on their containers calling attention to the plight of the Clavey.
“I’m totally convinced that it’s a crime against the planet and people to dam that up,” said Greg Steltenpohl, chairman of Odwalla. “We’re going to do everything we can to help.”
The dam has stirred up deep feelings here in Tuolumne County, where some believe that communities in this area of high unemployment should have the chance to cash in on a new dam.
But some residents, for whom the Clavey has been a well-kept secret over the years, have joined environmentalists in opposing the project.
“This is really a place to draw the line,” said Anker, the cattle rancher turned preservationist. “As a person from a pioneer family, I would like to think my grandchildren could find one place that was like what it was when their ancestors got here.”