On the Kings River, more power would stop running the rapids

By Mark Sherman, The Associated Press
Monday July 08, 2002

Popular river rafting locale could be bottled up by proposed dam that would hold in 228 billion gallons of water 


TRIMMER – Soaked by 58-degree snow melt, the rafters share a group high-five, then slap their paddles in unison in the Kings River. 

No one has gone into the drink in their run through the river’s most challenging rapid, Banzai. 

Such moments explain why people pay more than $100 to spend a few hours on the river. Whitewater rafting is a thriving business on this river that descends unimpeded from the Sierra Nevada. 

Less than two hours from Fresno, this section of the Kings is among the state’s more popular rafting destinations. It supports three outfitters during a season that lasts from early spring to midsummer in average years. 

Plans that have been studied off and on for 40 years would stop the rafting excursions. A proposed dam would flood the river canyon and turn the rapids to a placid lake that could hold 228 billion gallons of water to supply farms and households, and generate power. 

Legislation recently introduced in Congress by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., would protect the 11-mile stretch of the Kings and 21 other California rivers from dams and other developments. The bill also would give “wilderness” designation to 2.4 million acres of California land, restricting mining and logging. 

William McGinnis, owner of one of the Kings River outfitters, mixes his advocacy for protecting the river with instructions to the three paddlers in the raft he is guiding. 

“Why would you ever want to destroy this?” McGinnis says, pointing out a large granite outcropping high above the river. 

McGinnis, 55, has run Whitewater Voyages for 27 years. He lives in the Bay Area, but eagerly agrees to make the trip to take an Associated Press reporter on a tour of the river. 

Upstream, as it courses through Kings Canyon National Park, the river gained “wild and scenic” status in 1987. Downstream is Pine Flat Dam, built nearly 50 years ago to generate power and regulate water supplies in the Central Valley. Pine Flat Lake, the reservoir created by the dam, also is alive with recreational boaters on a recent hot, sunny weekend. 

But the portion of the river used by whitewater rafters was not protected because of the possibility of building a dam at Rodgers Crossing, a couple of miles north of where the outfitters have campgrounds and parking areas for their customers. 

A compromise reached 15 years ago ultimately would require Congress to approve building the dam, which would cost around $600 million, according to the current estimates. 

The compromise provides ample protection, say Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Hanford, and David Orth, general manager of the Kings River Conservation District. 

“It is unlikely that you ever will build the project on the Kings River,” said Dooley, who opposes including the Kings River in the legislation. “But in legislation that would preclude it in perpetuity, the harm is that you then have totally precluded any option in the future to really revisit this.” 

Orth, who said he had a lot of fun on his two outings on the river, said the water district has no plans to build the dam at the moment. During last year’s energy crisis, staff did rough calculations on the costs of generating electricity at the proposed dam, then concluded the benefits were too small, he said. 

Orth estimated it would take at least 15 years to get necessary go-aheads from state and federal regulators. 

“I think we recognize today’s political reality, but we’re not willing to accept that it’s the reality for ever more,” Orth said. “I was reminded by board members that at one time, Pine Flat Dam was thought to be politically unfeasible.” 

That kind of talk motivates McGinnis and other members of California’s Wild Heritage Campaign. While there are a handful of active logging and mining proposals in California forests, Boxer’s bill mainly is an effort to kill tomorrow’s development plans in the state’s forests and on its rivers. 

Both sides cite California’s projected population growth. Boxer wants to preserve recreation; opponents want to be able to supply water and power when more than 50 million people live in California in the next 20 years. 

The prospects for her legislation and two companion bills in the House of Representatives are dim this year. Boxer hopes merely to have a hearing on the legislation by the end of the year in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Corey Brown, a Boxer spokeswoman, said. 

Boxer has said she plans to reintroduce the bill in the next Congress, which begins in January, and attempt to pass it in pieces. 

She has yet to secure the support of her fellow California Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is seeking input from interested parties around the state, spokesman Howard Gantman said. 

McGinnis’ company tries to capitalize on the thrills of the river trip to get clients to offer Feinstein their views. 

His raft is one of seven being used by emergency room workers who have driven more than seven hours from San Diego for an overnight stay that includes two trips down the river and meals. 

Just before the final rapid, Rooster Tail, the boats draw near along the river bank, the group grateful for the sliver of shade beneath a narrow bridge. 

McGinnis launches into his talk about protecting the river for all time. “For those of you who want to do something about it, you’re in luck. We have pens and paper for you to write a letter to Sen. Feinstein telling her you want to protect the river,” McGinnis says. 

The brief lecture complete, McGinnis guides his boat through the rousing finale, which must be what it feels like to take a quick trip through a washing machine — wash, rinse and spin all in one.