Recreation, the "Frosting on the
Cake" - Chapter 18
Print version of chapter
Even before the completion of New Don Pedro Dam,
the Modesto Irrigation District entered the recreation
field somewhat reluctantly. In designing the project,
Bechtel engineers described recreation development
as "frosting on the cake." Before the work was
completed, the districts had put far more frosting
on the cake than was anticipated initially.
The Federal Power Commission, the State of California
and common sense ruled that recreation demands
upon reservoir the size of Don Pedro Lake would
be tremendous. After all, California?s fifth largest
reservoir was to extend 26 miles upstream, have
a surface area of 13,000 acres and a shoreline
of 160 miles. With a population of 600,000 living
within 50 miles of lake and 6.3 million within
150 miles, 400,000 visitors were expected annually.
Adequate provisions had to be made to meet this
Although required to develop recreation resources
as part of its basic construction project, the
districts initially wanted no part of operating
the facility when it was completed.
The California Department of Water Resources
was willing to fund much of the recreation development,
but the state Department of Parks and Recreation
made it clear at the outset that it wanted no
part of operating the project. Although it had
established a state park at Turlock?s regulating
reservoir, the agency claimed the New Don Pedro
site did not warrant similar consideration because
it had neither native landscape nor historical
importance. Furthermore, it contended there were
enough recreational opportunities at other Central
Sierra foothill reservoirs.
In the fall of 1967 when construction of New
Don Pedro got under way, project sponsors were
inclined to meet the minimum requirements of the
FPC license. They also were firm in their determination
to get some other agency to operate the facilities.
This had been done at Modesto Reservoir, where
the Stanislaus County Parks Department had developed
and now maintains recreation facilities. Turlock?s
Owens Reservoir had become Turlock Lake State
Even after the California Water Commission approved
an initial $7 million grant for basic recreation
development, a majority of MID directors were
not enthusiastic about entering the recreation
field, despite editorial pressure from The
Modesto Bee to do so. Thomas K. Beard, MID
board president at the time who became a positive
force in subsequent development of recreation
facilities, recalls, "There were a lot of people
worked up about the district going into the recreation
The turning point came when San Francisco Public
Utilities Manager James K. Carr arranged a tour
of Northern California recreation projects. Irrigation
district directors saw what could be accomplished
at places such as the National Park Service?s
Whiskeytown Reservoir and the U. S. Forest Service?s
Shasta Lake, and what should not be done at Napa
County?s Lake Berryessa. As undersecretary of
interior under Presidents John F. Kennedy and
Lyndon B. Johnson, Carr had played a major role
in the development of the Shasta-Trinity-Whiskeytown
National Recreation Area, working closely with
the legislative father of the project, Northern
California Congressman Harold T. (Bizz) Johnson.
Those making the tour returned determined to
do a first-class job at Don Pedro Lake. Over their
"nervous stage," MID directors urged increasing
the design capacity by an additional 100,000 visitors
per year and, with their partner, went to work
to achieve a goal of providing excellent recreation
facilities. Before they were done, $7 million
was invested in the effort.
The Don Pedro Recreation Agency, comprised of
representatives of the three Tuolumne River partners
? the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts
and the City of San Francisco, was created to
oversee the development and operation until a
suitable agency could be found to take over.
A retired veteran of 37 years of experience in
recreation and conservation management with the
U. S. Forest Service, George S. James was hired
as recreation agency manager. As a federal forester,
James had been regional director of all national
forests in the northeastern quarter of the United
States, ranging from Minnesota and Missouri to
MID President Beard summarized the district?s
determination to provide excellent recreation
opportunities with the comment, "We always thought
of water and power as the main purpose of this
(New Don Pedro project, but recreation has become
a third equally important use."
Beard?s philosophy was endorsed enthusiastically
by fellow MID Directors Mathew Fiscalini and Milton
Kidd, who played crucial roles in the decision
to develop more than the minimum required. The
latter was described by recreation area manager
James as a "ball of fire when it came to recreation
Kidd, who had served as an MID director for 35
years including three terms as president, died
suddenly on February 5, 1971, while in San Francisco
for joint meetings on the New Don Pedro Project
and did not live to see the realization of his
dream of the recreation area achieving statewide
Eulogized as a "man of the people," Kidd had
served on the MID Board of Directors longer than
any other person. Not only was he a forceful supporter
of developing the best possible recreation facilities,
he also had taken an active role in all aspects
of the New Don Pedro Project and other modernization
programs of the rapidly-expanding Modesto district?s
operations through a challenging three-and-a-half
decades of service.
He was succeeded on the district?s board of directors
by his nephew, John E. Kidd, who shared his enthusiasm
for recreation and represented the MID on the
joint agency that implemented the Don Pedro Lake
One of the first steps to expand the recreation
opportunities was the purchase of additional land
to provide better boat-launching ramps and other
facilities. Construction contracts were awarded.
All buildings were of pole-type construction with
rough-sawn redwood to blend into the environment.
All utilities were placed underground. The districts
and San Francisco set about creating, in James?
words, "a hospitable environment."
A private Lake Don Pedro Corporation, headed
by Emory Bonnier of Turlock, was formed and became
the successful bidder for concession operations
at the west end of the lake. The concessionaire
returns to the districts and San Francisco 4.5
percent of its gross earnings, which currently
top the $2 million mark annually. Twice expanded,
the marina now has 234 slips for motor and sail
boats, a houseboat dock for 66 boats and moorings
for an additional 129 houseboats. The concession
operations also include a restaurant and related
marina, grocery and visitor services.
By the time the recreation area was dedicated
formally on May 7, 1972, Don Pedro Lake already
was enjoying considerable use by boaters, water
skiers, fishermen, swimmers, campers and picnickers.
In spite of low-water levels during the summer
of 1972, the reservoir park facilities continued
"to pack them in."
Meanwhile, the search for a permanent operator
Tuolumne County, the Federal Bureau of Land Management,
National Park Service, U. S. Forest Service and
the Federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation all expressed
interest in managing the facilities.
As early as 1967 Tuolumne County Supervisor Ralph
Thiel campaigned to have his county take over
the management. He claimed Tuolumne County was
responsible for the inclusion of recreation requirements
in the FPC license and should take advantage of
Modesto directors and their partners were concerned,
however, about the adequacy of Tuolumne County?s
resources to handle such a massive undertaking.
This concern was increased by visits to Lake Berryessa,
where Napa County had contracted the entire operation
to a concessionaire in a manner similar to what
Tuolumne County was planning. Lake Berryessa?s
recreation operations were considered distressing.
Not everyone in Tuolumne County favored county
involvement. The county Farm Bureau urged the
board of supervisors to "stick to government"
and not get involved in ventures such as this.
Ultimately, Tuolumne County modified its demand
that the county operate the park. The county continued
to insist, however, that no federal agency should
This became a moot point when all federal agencies
subsequently declined to participate. The last
to abandon the idea was the Federal Bureau of
Land Management, which manages the publicly owned
foothill lands in the vicinity of the reservoir.
The desire was there, but congressional appropriations
The districts and San Francisco came to the realization
in 1979 that they were left with the responsibility
of not only developing recreation facilities but
also of operating and maintaining them.
Although it was a decision made largely by default,
hindsight has proved it to be most wise.
Once the decision was made, the determination
that the recreation area would be operated and
maintained at the highest standards of quality
was reaffirmed. The districts also insisted that
it be self sufficient once necessary improvements
had been made.
Until this time recreation area managers had
been employed on an interim basis, part of their
responsibility being to find another operating
Recognizing that they were in the recreation
business for keeps, the Don Pedro Lake Recreation
Agency in April 1980 hired Carl Rust, a retired
U. S. Forest Service recreation and resources
specialist. He was given the task of achieving
the two goals: modernization and self sufficiency.
Both have been achieved under Rust?s management.
Today the districts take great pride in the operation
of what is rated as one of the best recreation
areas in the West. State and federal recreation
agencies point to Don Pedro Lake as the prime
example of how it should be done.
That the public has responded is shown by visitor
figures for 1986. Visits to recreation areas such
as Yosemite National Park, the Stanislaus National
Forest and nearby Exchequer Reservoir were on
the decline. Don Pedro Lake, however, is attracting
more people, currently hovering at or above the
maximum design capacity of 500,000 visitor days
of use annually. On Memorial Day 1986 there were
10,000 people at the lake. The total visitor-day
use for the three-day weekend was 30,000. There
were 3,000 boats on the lake at times that weekend.
In the fall of 1986 reservations for 1987 were
running well ahead of past records.
Today Don Pedro Lake offers 550 tent and recreation
vehicle campsites, complete with hot water showers.
About half of these are at Fleming Meadow at the
eastern end of the dam. Also located there are
the largest boat launching area, picnic areas,
a white sand-lined swimming lagoon with filtered
water and an extensive marina, restaurant and
The Blue Oak Recreation Area on the west end
of the dam, formerly called Mexican Gulch, has
campgrounds, a picnic area and boat-launching
facilities. Moccasin Point 18 miles up the lake
has camping and picnic areas, and a marina and
concession services operated by the R. D. Meeker
Two hundred seventy-four houseboats, including
two rental fleets, are moored at the Fleming Meadow
and Moccasin marina. Fishing is good. Swimming,
power boating, sailing are excellent. Campgrounds
and picnic areas are clean and restaurants and
other concession services well received.
The districts and the city have insisted upon
maintaining high standards of cleanliness and
sanitation throughout the area?s history. Directors
emphasized the importance of family-type recreation
and as a result Don Pedro is described as "everybody?s
The recreation opportunities at the popular reservoir
are among the best in the state, disproving completely
the California Beaches and Parks Department?s
earlier contention that there had been enough
water-oriented recreation opportunities in Central
While Modesto Irrigation District directors and
their partners in New Don Pedro?s operation were
learning the ropes about recreation management,
they still were involved in the fishery problems.
In 1965 when the United States Supreme Court
let stand a lower court decision upholding the
validity of the Federal Power Commission?s New
Don Pedro license requirements, on issue was the
required releases from New Don Pedro to sustain
the salmon fishery. When state Davis-Grunsky funds
were sought to help finance solving the fishery
problems as well as the Don Pedro Lake recreation
development, the state required, in addition to
the water releases, the improvement and maintenance
of some 2 million square feet of gravel-spawning
beds along a 17.2 mile downstream stretch of the
Tuolumne River between La Grange and Waterford.
Involved were the areas from which contractors
had taken gold dredge tailings for use in building
New Don Pedro Dam. In many areas the districts
had not acquired title to the property, buying
only the tailings. When the areas were to be reworked
for spawning beds, the property owners objected.
Ultimately the purchases were not required.
While the state fish and game emphasis at the
time was on improved spawning beds, the districts
in November 1970 voluntarily increased releases
from New Don Pedro to aid in the fall salmon-spawning
run in the river.
In September 1971 the districts, following fish
and game specifications, were forced to complete
the first-stage spawning bed rehabilitation of
1 million square feet in an area where the districts
did hold title to the land. Spawning beds described
as "plush" were created, but the fish didn?t especially
care for them. Initial on-the-scene reports indicated
that most of the more than 20,000 salmon which
came up the river that fall spurned the man-made
beds and found natural beds.
Although subsequent Fish and Game Department
reports claimed that 60 percent of the run had
used 18 percent of the beds, the state agency
changed its mind. The districts, after all the
fuss, now were not required to rehabilitate the
remainder of the designated gravel beds. Fishery
experts decided once again that the key to improved
spawning would be found in the controlled releases
of water, not man-made spawning beds. Thus, $1
million in Davis-Grunsky funds earmarked for this
purpose was withdrawn.
Although state fish and game biologists were
to change directions several times, constant reservoir
releases favorable to spawning were maintained,
even though on many occasions water had to be
diverted through both the MID and TID main canals
and dumped back into the river below the spawning
Fluctuations in the salmon run have been recorded,
but in the fall of 1985 more than 40,000 fish
swam up the Tuolumne to spawn. In the opinion
of long-time La Grange resident Bill Keeler, an
ardent fisherman who has watched the salmon run
for 75 years, 1985 was the best he has seen, before
or after construction of New Don Pedro.
Under the provisions of the Federal Power Commission
license and subsequent cooperative agreements
between the districts and the state and federal
agencies, a program to monitor and evaluate the
salmon fishery will continue until 1993 at a cost
to the irrigation districts of several hundreds
of thousands of dollars. The study that was initiated
shortly after the issuance of the FPC license
was delayed due to changing philosophies within
the state and federal fish and game agencies.
After negotiating with the fish and game agencies
in 1986, MID Chief Executive Officer H. L. Brooks,
said the current release schedule of between 100
and 385 cubic feet per second between October
1st and the end of April each year
and no less than 3 second feet of water the remainder
of the year appears satisfactory.
Brooks warned, however, that the districts must
diligently protect their water supplies in considering
any future water-release flow agreements.
The results of this study undoubtedly will provide
further information on the enhancement of fisheries
in other areas. Thus, in agreeing to finance the
research, the Modesto and Turlock districts once
again are proving themselves pathfinders in efforts
which will benefit the rest of the state and nation.
The local dispute had statewide implications
in another direction.
As a result of protests by the riverside property
owner, California Attorney General Evelle J. Younger
ruled that the Tuolumne River proper was open
for boating, fishing, hunting and recreation purposes,
much to the objections of the property owners.
Historically, property owners had prevented such
intrusions, some by erecting fences across the
The ruling, confirmed and broadened in subsequent
years by case law resulting from court actions,
now has statewide implications as to the accessibility
of rivers bordered by private property.