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American River politics boiling

Rick Chandler

“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.” – Mark Twain

COLOMA – The roiling political waters in the American River canyon haven’t changed much since Mark Twain first visited here 120 years ago. Indeed, the author of such classic works as “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Damned Human Race” loved a good old-fashioned, knock-down brawl, which means he would feel right at home in today’s local political climate.

El Dorado County is a rolling, expansive study in diversity, from the nature of its environment to the political leanings of its population. And “A River Runs Through It.” It’s the South Fork of the American River, to be exact. A 20.7-mile stretch of this historic waterway has become the latest center of controversy here, with development and water rights proponents squaring off against recreation and environmental supporters for a prize no less than the identity of the river itself.

But in an unusual twist, this time the water-rights activists are waving the environmental banner to get their point across. Measure W, or the El Dorado County Streams and Rivers Preservation Act, seeks to limit by half the number of commercial rafting trips on the South Fork.

Proponents of the measure claim that the river is being severely damaged by the 42 commercial outfitters who lead trips on the American. If the commercial rafters are not regulated, they claim, both the river ecosystem and the rights of local homeowners will be trampled beyond recognition.

But wait a minute, warn opponents of the measure. Commercial rafters love the American, and do more to watchdog the river than anyone. Limiting their numbers is just a thinly-disguised political mortar attack on recreation advocates and actual environmentalists, who for years have been a thorn in the saddles of developers.

At its heart, the dispute indeed reflects an ongoing struggle between pro-growth and limited-growth factions in the county. When Congressman John Doolittle, R-Rocklin, introduced a bill in 1983 to build a dam in Auburn, it set off a chain of events which has manifested itself today as Measure W.

Commercial rafting outfitters were among those who initially opposed the Auburn Dam project, claiming, along with local environmentalists, that it would decimate the American River.

That opposition was a declaration of war to those political factions struggling to increase water rights to serve the county’s rapidly expanding population. The Auburn Dam project is still on the shelf in Congress, but the local hand-to-hand combat continues: the latest salvo being fired by outgoing El Dorado County Fourth District Supervisor Walter Shultz.

Shultz introduced Measure W a month ago, and it passed the Board of Supervisors by a 3-2 vote. So now the measure goes before voters on Nov. 3 – with both sides courting the South Lake Tahoe area for the edge they need to win.

Many contend that the measure is Shultz’s payback to commercial rafters, who supported Penny Humphreys in her successful campaign against Shultz for his supervisor’s seat in June.

Not so say Measure W proponents, who claim that they are simply looking out for property owners’ rights and are concerned about the health of the river.

Are commercial rafters really a threat to the river? A recently released Environmental Impact Report prepared by the El Dorado County River Management Plan would seem to indicate that they are not.

“In a nutshell, we found that Measure W has no environmental documentation behind it,” said Shane Ryerson, the El Dorado County Parks project coordinator who was a consultant (helped to draft) the River Management Plan EIR. “People can draw their own conclusions from that.

“The theory that the river needs protection is a valid one, but (Measure W) won’t do that successfully.”

The report – which at a cost of $440,000 comes to about $1,000 per page – comes at a good time for commercial outfitters, who are pleading their case to voters as election day fast approaches.

“This report, which was three years in the making, bears out what we’ve been saying all along,” said Corky Collier, owner of California River Tours in Placerville and chairman of the River Management Advisory Committee. “Overall, what you see is that whitewater rafting impact has not been causing any significant problems (on the South Fork). Are there individual problems? Yes. But Measure W does nothing to address those. It’s a bad law.”

Executive Director Charlie Casey of Friends of the River, an environmental watchdog group, agrees.

“To arbitrarily reduce rafting on the American won’t solve anything,” Casey said. “Floating down that river is one of the least damaging activities going on in that canyon. Our population is growing, and yes, there is a desire for more water. But this is no way to solve anything.”

By Casey’s own admission, Friends of the River is among several environmental groups that receive a portion of their funding from commercial rafters. But much of that money goes toward monitoring the river – enforcing quiet zones, cleaning up trash and maintaining put-in (raft launch) points.

But Measure W supporters, such as El Dorado resident Bernard Carlson, aren’t buying any of it.

“More than 100,000 rafters go down that river every year,” said Carlson, a retired aerospace engineer who has lived in the county since 1984. “Would you want that many people tramping across your lawn? These people (commercial rafters) are abusing the hell out of the river. The banks and slopes are denuded due to them. We’re just trying to upgrade the quality of the river experience.”

Carlson also points to environmental efforts to stop water projects – such as Friends of the River’s recent lawsuit to stop the “Garden Hose Fix,” a county project to construct a temporary water pipe near Kyburz. Measure W proponents also claim that due to construction at put-in points such as Chili Bar near Coloma, periodic flooding deposits silt and topsoil into the river.

“Of course that happens,” Collier said. “Hey, it’s a flood. During the 1996 flood, my house floated downstream about a hundred yards and exploded. That’s nature. Nobody seems to be getting worked up about it but Bernard Carlson.”

But Shultz, who began the whole process, remains adamant.

“We’re simply trying to equalize the interests between private citizens and boaters,” he said. “They (commercial rafters) want a proposal to double their numbers from what they are now. That’s unacceptable.

“The banks (of the South Fork) are beginning to look like trampled feed lots. When they buy a ticket, some customers feel like they own the river for the day.

“It’s not my intention to put anyone out of business, but it’s my hope that (commercial outfitters) will adapt.”

First District Supervisor Sam Bradley disagrees with his colleague – to put it lightly.

“This is nothing but payback on a base level,” Bradley said. “Walt is willing to destroy an industry just to get even. It’s cheap politics.”

But politics in all its forms are nothing new to the Coloma Valley, where homeowners, ranchers, farmers and 49ers have contested water rights and other issues for 150 years. It’s an authentic frontier battle – a scrap that ‘ol Sam Clemens would be sorry he missed.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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