UARP – a missed opportunity in the 1920s

By Michael Raffety


Three EID communications directors ago I was asked to research the founding of the El Dorado Irrigation District, which took place in 1925. Incidental to that research I came across a few stories about Congressman Harry Englebright.

Interestingly Englebright won a special election in 1926 when Congressman John Raker died in office. Raker, is most famous for the Raker Act, passed in 1913 and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. The Raker Act authorized damming the Tuolumne River in the Hetch Hetchy Valley to assure San Francisco of a water supply.

Before entering politics Englebright was a mining engineer, which meant he could recognize water projects. Englebright tried to convince El Dorado County to develop what is now known as the Upper American River Project.

The board then lacked the vision or chutzpah to follow his suggestion.

Instead the Sacramento Municipal Utility District won a federal power license 30 years later. It wasn’t until 1985 that the last dam and powerhouse was built. UARP, also known as the Stairway of Power, has 687 megawatts of power and impounds 430,000 acre-feet of water.

All El Dorado County got was contracts for 40,000 acre-feet of water by tapping into the White Rock Penstock on the South Fork of the American River. They are dated 1956 and 1961.

Now the El Dorado County Water Agency is trying to make good on those contracts for 9.3 percent of SMUD’s UARP water. Estimates it will cost $8 million-$10 million to win water rights from the state under the 1927 area of origin rights.

If El Dorado County had committed to bonding that much in the 1920s it could have laid claim to the whole URAP project from the Rubicon to the South Fork and all its related tributaries.

In the 1920s that money would have gone to engineering and dams. Today it goes to attorneys, consultants and environmental studies all aimed at convincing the State Water Resources Control Board to give El Dorado County the right to the water it contracted with SMUD for 60 years ago.

In 1941 The Army Corps of Engineers put Englebright Dam in operation. Its main purpose was to catch hydraulic mining debris. A concrete arch dam on the Upper Yuba River, it provides 70,000 acre-feet of recreation and 294 kilowatt hours of electricity.

Congressman Englebright was Republican minority whip from 1933 until his death in 1943. You can bet he got that dam authorized by Congress.

Raker, Englebright – Congressmen got real project accomplished. Too bad El Dorado County had to wait 90 years to actually try get some benefit from the Upper American River Project.


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