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River easy to love

Rick Chandler

COLOMA – The controversy surrounding Measure W has something in common with the American River itself: to fully understand it, you have to jump right in.

“The river is very addictive, very alluring,” said Joe Carroll, a kayak enthusiast who has been boating the South Fork of the American for 10 years. “When you’re out here almost every day, like I am, you develop a respect for it. You realize both how powerful and fragile it is. The main word that comes to mind is ‘respect.'”

Carroll is one of a growing number of boating enthusiasts who have fallen in love with the South Fork of the American, and thus have an intense interest in issues that would affect it.

Measure W, which goes before El Dorado County voters on Nov. 3, would limit commercial rafting on the American to half its current capacity – cutting professional outfitters to about 50,000 trips per year.

Are commercial rafters really hurting the American? Proponents contend that rafters – both from commercial outfits and non-profit, private groups – are trampling the banks and damaging the environment.

But people like Ron Thompson, a South Lake Tahoe resident who kayaks the South Fork on a regular basis, aren’t so sure.

“I haven’t seen commercial boaters making an impact,” he said. “Commercial rafts are no big deal to me … I see no problem with a line of rafts going down the river. The impact is minimal.”

Thompson boats the river with his wife, Mary, who are both rangers with the U.S. Forest Service in the Desolation Wilderness area. The couple has lived in South Lake Tahoe for 19 years, and Ron has been boating the American for 23 years.

“The changes I’ve seen along the river in that time have more to do with development,” Thompson said. “You see a lot more houses. Also there are more (commercial rafting) camps along the river. But they keep those pretty nice.”

The American River is one of the most harnessed waterways in the nation, and thus possibly the most popular spot for rafters. A series of dams and water projects – operated by the state of California, the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District and Pacific Gas & Electric – create water releases which in turn provide ideal whitewater runs for rafters and other small boat enthusiasts.

The South Fork of the American plays host to approximately 120,000 commercial rafting trips per season, in addition to uncounted private and non-profit rafting groups and individual boaters like the Thompsons. The water release from Chili Bar Dam, a PG&E hydroelectric facility, has made the South Fork one of the most accessible and sought-after whitewater runs in the nation.

“It has a consistent flow which is at the perfect level (for boating),” Thompson said. “It’s not super challenging, but not too tame. It’s a fun run.”

All this makes the South Fork especially appealing to families, children and older adults. And commercial outfitters do a grand business, which would be severely damaged with the passage of Measure W.

But what of the natural habitat and wildlife that may be harmed by the rafters?

“I’m a balloonist, and I float down the American River Canyon quite often,” said Alan Ergot, executive director of the American River Conservancy. “The threats to wildlife and habitat seem to have more to do with road building and erosion. The commercial rafters are usually very conscientious with their behavior on the river.”

Commercial companies can be fined up to $250 for violations of “quiet zones” or trespassing regulations.

“Twenty years ago, homeowners were shooting at boaters,” Ergot said. “We’ve come a long way since then. But there still seems to be a political agenda here.

“The rafting community tends to oppose water projects, the Auburn Dam project being a good example. Significant and powerful developers don’t sit well with that. It’s become a real battle.”

It’s true that the American River has seen better days, and worse. John Marshall’s famous discovery in 1848 in Coloma triggered the California Gold Rush, and miners were not kind to the river or its surroundings in the succeeding years. Miners left trenches, gorges and rock piles to mark where they worked, evidence still partly visible today. Mercury deposits left by the 49ers’ sluicing operations are still detectable in the river bed. In 1891 the American River Land & Lumber Co. used several tons of black powder to blast a channel in the river near Chili Bar to float logs to the lumber mills in Folsom – a practice they continued for nine years.

Trees and shrubs cover most of the old scars, but now there are new threats to the river – cattle grazing, upstream logging, suction dredge mining and development being chief among them.

There has been no sweeping, all-inclusive study done to determine the effects all this has on the American. And the river can’t speak for itself.

Or can it? It speaks to people like Ron and Mary Thompson and Joe Carroll, who appreciate the American on a level that the politicians can’t understand.

They are a part of the river, exploring the major runs like Meat Grinder, Rock Garden and Trouble Maker; hanging out in the cool, shallow pools, feeling its bends and flows. They know when its calm and feel when its angry. They just understand.

“The river has a personality,” Carroll said. “It doesn’t take long for you to realize that this is a living organism. It’s a part of me now.”

“The more people get on the river, the more they will want to protect it,” Thompson said.

“It goes beyond all the political issues,” Carroll said. “The river just is.”

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

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