[Story by Matt Brown in Lodi News-Sentinel forwarded by the Foothill Conservancy]
Pete Bell has been exploring and protecting the Mokelumne River for a quarter century. The former rock 'n' roller with a wild mane of silver hair and a bushy beard and mustache has taken on a large electric company and petitioned the federal government to open up the river from Salt Springs Dam to the Electra Powerhouse.
"It's my backyard," said Bell, who lives in the tiny foothill town of Volcano. "If we don't save it for our kids, they're never going to know what we had."
As vice president of the Foothill Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group, Bell helped lobby to force Pacific Gas and Electric to remove three dams on the Mokelumne watershed and restore the river's health.
PG&E owns rights to much of the Mokelumne from the Salt Springs Reservoir down to Highway 49. The utility maintains a complex plumbing system to move water from nine reservoirs through four powerhouses providing electricity for more than 200,000 homes.
When PG&E's federal license came up for renewal in the late 1990s, Bell was at the negotiating table with other environmentalists, recreational groups and the Federal Energy Regulation Commission.
"Relicensing of hydro projects is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to increase the health of rivers," he said. "FERC licenses run anywhere from 30 to 50 years, and this is the only chance I'm going to have, so I seized on it."
The negotiations, which became heated at times, were very productive from an environmental standpoint. When the dust cleared and PG&E received their new license in 2001, FERC required them to remove three dams on tributaries of the Mokelumne and return the river's flows to natural levels.
When PG&E demolished its 70-year-old West Panther Creek Dam in 2003, it was the first dam removal in the utility's history.
"It set the precedent nationwide," Bell said. "It has produced a movement within the hydro world to look at each and every project that comes up for relicensing and say which dams are necessary and which are not. Those that are not, let's get rid of them."
But Bell and the Foothill Conservancy are not finished in their quest to preserve the Mokelumne. The organization is lobbying for federal Wild and Scenic status for the river, which would prevent further construction of dams and diversions.
The protection, which takes an act of Congress, has been recommended for 17 miles of the Mokelumne from Salt Spring to Tiger Creek. The Bureau of Land Management recently recommended another 20 miles from Tiger Creek to Highway 49 for Wild and Scenic protection.
After more than 20 years exploring and preserving the Mokelumne, Bell, who is a sound engineer in his day job, continues to protect the river he loves.
"We do a booth at the county fair every year," he said. "One year we asked people what they love about the Mokelumne. Why is it important to you? And one guy wrote a statement that stuck in my mind. He says, 'I want my daughter to know what a river really is.' And that stuck with me for all these years."
Read more at the Foothill Conservancy website.