Not everyone knows that the East Bay Muncipal Water District (EBMUD) manages watersheds — and the recreation that goes on there — as well as serving up drinking water and treating sewage. In addition to the District’s primary source of drinking water on the Mokelumne River, it maintains five terminal storage reservoirs in the East Bay, including Chabot, Upper San Leandro, San Pablo, Lafayette, and Briones.
EBMUD is currently reviewing and updating its Watershed Master Plan, a process it is required to undergo every 20 years. There are a number of critical issues the District will need to address in this review, including climate change, habitat conservation, water quality, and fire prevention. In terms of changes to recreational use, mountain biking advocates have called for opening up EBMUD watershed lands to their uses. EBMUD Director Marguerite Young — whom the Sierra Club endorsed when she ran for the office in 2014 — is leading the process to reconsider the long-standing policy against allowing mountain bikes on District watershed lands in the East Bay. Currently, EBMUD only allows hikers and equestrians on watershed lands with a trail permit.
EBMUD’s primary goals are to protect water quality and biodiversity and to keep the most protective status for watershed lands. The current policy on mountain biking has succeeded in fulfilling the District’s important public trust. So why mess with a system in balance? Mountain bikers can already bike on over 1,000 miles of trails in adjacent East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) lands. Certain wild places like watershed lands should be preserved in their most pristine state as sanctuaries for natural ecological processes and adaptations that protect significant plant and animal communities.
When the District last revised its Watershed Master Plan in 1995, a Citizens Advisory Committee studied the issue of whether to allow mountain bike access. The Committee concluded that in order to protect water quality and biodiversity it was wise to continue the ban on mountain bikes (a position the Sierra Club supported then as now), and in 1996 the EBMUD Board voted to accept the Committee’s recommendation.
In watershed lands, mountain bikes are only allowed on a set of trails around the Lafayette Reservoir — which has a paved trail to prevent erosion — and on certain paved areas of San Pablo Reservoir Recreation Area. This policy protects the pristine watershed lands while allowing some access to bikers in areas that are less sensitive and have already been developed.
On August 20th, the District held a well-attended public hearing at which Sierra Club spokesperson Norman LaForce expressed concern that fast-moving cyclists could increase erosion, disturb wildlife, collide with joggers and equestrians, and interfere with the serenity of these “natural jewels.” Larry Kolb, a member of the Chapter’s East Bay Public Lands committee, spoke as a hiker-biker and raised the problem of hikers feeling overrun by bikers coming downhill fast. He pointed out that mountain bikers already have lots of trails available in the neighboring EBRPD lands. Helen Burke, a former EBMUD Director, expressed concern about how bikers would be managed and how the watershed would be monitored for adverse impacts.
Enforcement and monitoring of mountain bikers would require additional resources from the District at a time when it is facing revenue reductions as a result of the drought and climate change. EBMUD currently only has one ranger for the entire watershed — certainly not sufficient to enforce regulations such as trail speed limits and staying on established trails. Even agencies with enforcement officers like the Park District find it hard to enforce rules and regulations concerning mountain bikes, because bikers move quickly. If EBMUD were to open up areas currently closed to mountain biking, it would have to create a large force to patrol thousands of acres of land, issue tickets, and take violators to court. In addition, EBMUD enforcement rangers might have to use motorized bikes, which would bring additional costs and environmental impacts.
There are also proponents of opening up the 13 miles of Ridge Trail that will go through EBMUD lands to bikers. Ensuring bikers stayed on that trail would be challenging, requiring a substantial ranger presence and checkpoints.
The Sierra Club opposes additional mountain bike access to watershed properties. The cost for accommodating this intense recreation would be too high, and would compromise the ability of the District to maintain biodiversity and water quality. It would also drastically change the experience for equestrian riders and hikers. In this time of persistent drought and climate disruption, EBMUD should be dedicating its time and resources to more pressing issues.
The issue of bike access on watershed lands will go to the Board Planning Committee and then to the full Board over the fall months with a decision likely after the first of the year.
You can write to the Board and tell them that the current policy, with some bike access in very developed areas, should not be changed. This policy has worked well for 20 years. Send your comments to email@example.com.
For more information go to www.ebmud.com/recreation/protecting-natural-habitat.
You can also participate with the Chapter’s East Bay Public Lands Committee on this issue. That group meets the second Wednesday of each month. Email Committee Chair Norman LaForce for details, at firstname.lastname@example.org.