It’s never too late to save a river

An old river running motto says, “Old sailors never die, they just get a little dinghy.” And some never lose their passion for keeping rivers wild.

Consider California’s Stanislaus River. In the 1970s, people of all ages and abilities reveled in running its 13 miles of rapids with terrifying names like Widowmaker and Devil’s Staircase. Not far from Sacramento and San Francisco, Limestone Canyon offered renewal and adventure to people almost year-round.

But back in 1944, the US Bureau of Reclamation approved the 625-foot New Melones Dam for Stan, even though it would drown the beloved canyon by filling it. Dam construction began in 1966 and lively opposition grew, giving rise to the grassroots organization Friends of the River. Proponents argued that a smaller, existing dam could meet flood control and energy production needs without drowning the wild stretch of the river.

Despite actions ranging from citizen initiatives to lawsuits and even a favorable Supreme Court ruling, New Melones Dam was built.

When the water in the reservoir rose in 1979, Friends of the River co-founder Mark Dubois chained himself to the bedrock below the high-water mark to force dam operators to stop filling. Fifteen-year-old Sue Knaup also went to work, “rescuing wildlife day and night for two months from flooded trees and islands.” But she couldn’t save them all, and Dubois couldn’t hold back the reservoir.

The river gorge and priceless prehistoric and historical cultural sites were flooded.

Now, as New Melones enters its fourth decade of broken promises in water supply, flood control and energy production, hundreds of river advocates from the old campaign hope to reclaim Stan. In their teens and twenties then, and today in their sixties and seventies, they believe the timing has never been better.

“It’s now a matter of ‘well, sure,'” says Dubois, vice president of the new nonprofit Restoring the Stanislaus River. “National momentum is growing for dam removal and expansion of economically and ecologically sound floodplains.”

Knaup, president and chief instigator of the new group, has moved his activism into film production. “When Mark wanted the Stanislaus story to be told as it should be – in pictures – I offered to make a film about the 1970s battle.”

Beginning work on the film reawakened their long-held dream of reclaiming the river, so now members are proposing a full watershed approach: revegetation of the upper river, removal of parts of New Melones to maintain lower reservoir levels, and working with downstream farmers to protect flood plains.

Promotion of the dismantling of large dams attracts a lot of attention in the media. Think of the Klamath River in California and Oregon and the Snake and Columbia Rivers in Washington. Taking down smaller dams gets less fanfare, although about 1,100 small dams have fallen in the last 20 years in the United States alone.

As California becomes increasingly dry, many people agree that New Melones Dam must disappear. Only 26 percent full today, the reservoir has been close to capacity only five times since first filling. Power generation capabilities, based on 40 years of in-flow data, have never been achieved. Even Interior Department engineers admit they underestimated the river’s drought and demand cycles “by a significant amount.”

Roy Tennant, a former Stanislaus River guide and now secretary of Restoring the Stanislaus River, acknowledges that successful full watershed restoration will “take a ton of work and money … but we’ve got to start while we’re alive and have the passion to carry it out.”

Kevin Wolf, former river guide organizer for the 1970s campaign and current treasurer of Restoring the Stanislaus River, says billion-dollar ballot measures may be what it takes to change the state’s water infrastructure, but “big ideas like removing dams starting with small groups of wild-eyed activists moving ideas forward.”

Dubois, whose civil lawsuits in the 1970s inspired many river protection efforts, adds that it’s time “to repair the good intentions of the antiquated dam era — to restore the wild rich abundance that rivers have always been.”

As for Knaup, she says “the healing has already begun as both the film and the effort to restore the Stanislaus River have come to life.” And the river? “I have every confidence that it will know what to do.”

Becca Lawton is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. A former Grand Canyon River guide and ranger, she began as a Stanislaus River guide and advocate. Top photo: New Melones Lake. “This section of the Stanislaus River is normally occupied by New Melones Lake (Dam) California’s drought in 2014 allowed us to kayak this famous section of the river.” Credit: Zachary Collier/Flickr

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