Concluding that a plan to dam the wild Clavey River near Yosemite would cause irreparable environmental harm, a pivotal federal study released Friday recommends against construction of the huge hydroelectric project.
The study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which rarely has sided with environmentalists on river preservation, praised the pristine river canyon and advised the dam's proponents to look for other power sources.
"We conclude that the proposed project would not develop sufficient public benefits to compensate for the environmental impacts associated with its construction and operation," the report said. "Therefore, we recommend that the proposed project not be licensed."
Environmentalists fighting the plan to build the 413-foot-high dam said they were thrilled by the recommendation. They say one of the last free-flowing rivers in California deserves protection.
"We have been saying all along that if ever there was a project that FERC would find indefensible, it would be this project," said Johanna Thomas, executive director of the San Francisco-based Tuolumne River Preservation Trust.
The recommendation does not necessarily doom the project. The commission will accept public comment for 90 days, issue a final environmental report and then vote on whether to adopt the findings.
The Turlock Irrigation District, which proposes damming the Clavey to produce peak summertime power for homes, farms and canneries in the Central Valley, acknowledged that the recommendation is a setback but said it is too early to say whether it will abandon the plan.
The commission's environmental study, while rejecting the Clavey dam, called for further analysis of two other alternatives, which could involve building a smaller diversion dam on the Clavey River.
Under these scenarios, water from the Clavey would be pumped to a nearby dam that would be built on either the North Fork of the Tuolumne River or Hunter Creek. Like the Clavey, they are both tributaries of the Tuolumne River.
"We are going to look at the two alternatives very closely," irrigation district spokesman John Mills said.
Environmentalists said those proposals also are flawed and would cause considerable environmental damage to the Clavey and the river chosen as the new dam site. They called on the irrigation district to solve its long-term energy problems through better conservation.
The Washington, D.C.-based environmental group American Rivers lists the Clavey as one of the country's 10 most endangered rivers. That status would not change with either of the alternatives proposed by the commission, said Tom Cassidy, a vice president of the group.
Environmentalists said they will continue pushing Congress to give the Clavey protected status.