The Godfather Speaks: Bob Hackamack on the Tuolumne River

 

Hackamack's Hole

Bob Hackamack is already immortalized with a portion of the Tuolumne River named for him—Hackamack’s Hole, a Class IV rapid. Fortunately for the river, Hackamack, a Control Systems and Chemical Engineer, is as adept with a slide rule as he is with a canoe or kayak paddle. Many of those who know best about protecting rivers credit Hackamack with the unique mix of passion and scientific expertise it took to bring the river to Wild and Scenic status.

In fact, Friends of the River Executive Director Ron Stork suggests Hackamack may be as important to early river conservation as John Muir was to the Sierra Nevada.

“He’s the grand old man of Tuolumne River conservation,” said Stork recently. Stork agrees with others who say that Hackamack pioneered river conservation in the modern era.

John Amodio, who was the first Director of The Tuolumne River Trust, and himself played a major role in Tuolumne conservation, said recently,

“Bob, indeed, did heroic work. He and others were responsible in the 1970’s in persuading the Forest Service to recommend that Congress should designate the Tuolumne as a federal Wild & Scenic river. For this and his continued unique and essential contributions to the Tuolumne’s ultimate protection as a Wild and Scenic river, as well as several additional decades focusing on its restoration, I consider him the Godfather of the Tuolumne. As an Italian-American, I am not using the mobster version popularized by Hollywood, but the traditional role of a Godfather who willingly takes on responsibility for the care and protection of a child, and serves that role throughout their life.”

Author Tim Palmer has written that Hackamack’s persuasion of Congressman Jack McFall to sponsor legislation calling for a study of the Tuolumne as a “Wild and Scenic” river was, “a stroke of political genius.”

Hackamack still follows Tuolumne River issues closely, and recently responded to questions from The Valley Citizen. Here’s the interview:

Valley Citizen:  How long have you been studying and lobbying for preservation of the Tuolumne River?

Hackamack: 43 years.

Valley Citizen:  You were the major factor in acquiring Wild and Scenic status for the Tuolumne. What added protection comes from Wild and Scenic status?

Hackamack:  I’m not a major factor, but an important factor. New dams and major new diversions are forbidden by designation.

Valley Citizen:  Over the years, what has been the most consistent threat to the River?

Hackamack: Considering the entire river, not just the designated upper portion, new dams and increasing existing diversions. Second is inadequate flow below La Grange for anadromous fish, principally salmon and steelhead trout.

Valley Citizen:  How much confidence do you have in the MID’s predicted water savings after infrastructure improvements?

Hackamack: As you know, MID puts more water into their canals than is required for farm irrigation in order to make operation easy. Unused water is spilled at the far end. The plan is to use money from San Francisco for extra drinking water to pay for reducing spills from 40,000 acre feet a year to 3,000. It is up to the MID board of directors to implement that plan step-by-step over a number of years instead of using the money for other purposes.

Valley Citizen:  Over the years, how often did you find errors or omissions in MID proposals?

Hackamack: I follow only Tuolumne River matters. In 1976 I discovered after more than eight hours of estimations and calculations on a San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) new dams proposal (in which MID and Turlock Irrigation District (TID) were not yet involved), that water would be shifted from existing electric generation at Moccasin to the proposed Wards Ferry Dam. MID and TID were expected to buy that same amount of electricity for seven times as much, putting about $2 million more a year into SFPUC profit. The day after I sent those calculations to others for verification, MID and TID joined SFPUC as sponsors of that project without notice or hearing. I went public with my findings. After the Districts realized what I called a swindle of the Districts in the Modesto Bee, their interest in that project cooled. After a while, SFPUC consultants wrote me saying my calculations were all wrong—that I had overestimated the shift by 12%! Not bad for a calculation without all the critical data. Three years later the shift was undone in a revised plan, which made the project’s benefits less attractive to the Districts and SF. This helped the effort for Wild and Scenic classification.

To answer your question succinctly, the Districts didn’t have their staffs go through that thick project report to pick up on the hint of the switch and pursue a review of the report through the obvious omissions of technical data to a conclusion. The staff and boards just accepted the SFPUC consultants’ rosy conclusions.

After the San Francisco Board of Supervisors endorsed Wild and Scenic, the Districts and SFPUC kept putting money into the preliminary work for those three dams until Congress, in effect, withdrew permission for dams on the main stem. Thereafter MID and SFPUC did the wise thing by opting out of the remaining proposed dams.

Valley Citizen:  Do increased flows help cleanse the river of toxins and pollutants?

Hackamack: Yes, but more importantly, more flow lowers temperature and provides more rearing habitat for salmon and steelhead trout and other fish in the lower 52 miles of the Tuolumne, and at the same time discourages predators of out migrating young. MID, TID and SFPUC say they need ever more water from the Tuolumne without wanting to spend more money on more water conservation or recycling because their diversion works are large and have been in place for many, many years.

Valley Citizen:  What are some of the overlooked aspects of the proposed MID water sale, including Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing?

Hackamack:  Water sales are legal and encouraged by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to transfer water from low value uses to higher value uses, which is thought to reduce waste of water and reduce the need for more dams. The FERC can tip that scale of uses toward protecting and enhancing natural values by requiring more water be devoted to fish, wildlife, recreation and the aesthetics of the Tuolumne from La Grange to its confluence with the San Joaquin if there is enough public interest in doing so. Also, the SWRCB is now pressing diverters in all of the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds to use less water and send more of the water under their control into the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta for the health of that water body.

Increased fall, winter and spring release of water into the Tuolumne at La Grange is one of those higher value uses to the California economy as well as in the other values for this river.

Valley Citizen: Thank you Bob.

Hackamack: Thanks for letting me explain my views.

 

 

About Eric Caine

Eric Caine teaches in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.