Last River Lost?
Fall 2009 edition of FOR's magazine, Headwaters
It Has Been 30 Years Since We Lost the Stanislaus… So Why Celebrate?
By Paul Tebbel, Executive Director
A brave community fought through the 1960s and 1970s to stop the building, then the filling, of New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River. Thirty years ago this summer, when the dispute was at its most intense point, a few members of a fledgling river conservation organization known then (and now) as “Friends of the River” chained themselves to rocks in an attempt to stop the Bureau of Reclamation from raising the reservoir level to where it would drown them and the river they loved. It worked and the filling stopped—but only temporarily. Eventually they failed and that section of river ceased to exist.
This community of people (now known as the “Stan Campaigners”) had a powerful emotional connection to the Stanislaus River. Their fight was not simply about policy and legal matters—for many it was personal. They lobbied at the federal, state, and local levels. They fought blatant lies spread through the media and constructed their own information campaign. They researched every detail put forward by the opposition and worked with allies to scientifically refute statements. And some even put their lives on the line.
Did we actually lose? To many Stan Campaigners, the answer is “yes.” But 30 years later, it is clear that through this loss the environmental community gained much more.
What did we win? During the last three decades, numerous major water supply dams were proposed, but none were built—the Auburn Dam is a key example.Water users (irrigation districts primarily) did construct some medium and large dams, but the costs were borne by the beneficiaries, not taxpayers. There is no doubt that what we learned from the Stanislaus Campaign helped us save more rivers.
A quotation from Scenic Drowning (by Robert and Barbara Sommer, 1984) further describes the value of that campaign: “The public received an incredible bargain in environmental education. For decades, cheaply subsidized federal water projects encouraged wasteful agricultural practices and provided little incentive for needed conservation measures. The (Stanislaus) campaign exposed the nested interests of politicians, land and agribusiness. Public awareness of water politics in California increased by a quantum leap during the campaign for the Stanislaus.”
Thus the Stan Campaigners can claim victory—they taught us all how to work to save rivers and how to win
Now, 30 years later, FOR is one of the few environmental organizations publicly opposing bad dam projects (Sites, Temperance Flats, and the raising of Shasta Dam are current examples) being pushed by Governor Schwarzenegger and his attempt to stick the California taxpayers with the bill through billions in bonds.We’ve read the reports and done the math, and we know these projects don’t make sense and need to be stopped.
With the teachings of the Stan Campaigners behind us, we will continue to oppose—and hopefully win.
To read more about the Stan Campaign, click here.