Giving up its fight to dam one of California's last free-flowing rivers, a Central Valley power company agreed Tuesday to shelve plans for a massive hydroelectric project on the Clavey River near Yosemite National Park.
Planners for the Turlock Irrigation District, which had sought for eight years to build a 413-foot-tall hydroelectric dam in the river's pristine canyon, said tougher environmental standards and slow economic growth had prompted them to halt the project.
The move was hailed by environmental groups such as American Rivers, which had listed the Clavey as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the United States.
"We are very pleased," said Margaret Bowman, an American Rivers spokeswoman. "When the Turlock Irrigation District is forced to factor environmental protection into the balance, the dam project just doesn't pay."
In a report to the board of the small utility district Tuesday, project manager John Mills recommended that the agency halt plans for the dam and two smaller alternative power projects that would have diverted water from the Clavey.
The board is expected to vote on the recommendation next week, but district spokesman Tony Walker said, "It's a foregone conclusion that it (the dam) is going to be deferred."
In July, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has jurisdiction over dam projects, concluded that the Clavey dam would cause irreparable environmental harm and recommended against its construction.
Since then, the irrigation district has attempted to develop alternative plans, including smaller hydroelectric projects that would have piped water from the Clavey to other reservoirs.
The district has spent $8.5 million on plans involving the Clavey and estimated that the dam would cost $345 million.
In recent months, district officials realized that expected growth in power demands had not materialized and that the coming deregulation of the electric power industry could make it difficult for the Turlock district to recoup its investment in a hydroelectric project.
But Mills kept open the possibility that the district might seek sometime to revive the plan to dam the river or divert some of its water to generate electricity.
"We remain absolutely convinced that a hydroelectric project involving the Clavey River is, in the long term, the best solution to (the irrigation district's) power needs," he said.
In recent months, environmentalists led by the San Francisco-based Tuolumne River Preservation Trust had taken their campaign against the project to the district's ratepayers, contending that the dam made little economic sense and could cause electric rates to rise as much as 22%.
With Tuesday's announcement, the trust will now focus on permanent protection for a 30-mile stretch of river. "This will add momentum to our campaign for wild and scenic designation," said Johanna Thomas, the group's executive director.