Dennett Dam’s Removal Means a Safer and Better Tuolumne River

Source: The Modesto Bee, Book of Dreams 2015
Date: November 22, 2015
Journalist: Ron Agostini


A white egret slowly glides above the metal and concrete remains of Dennett Dam, where Modesto dreams were hatched 80 years ago.

The small dam would create Lake Modesto, a 97-acre water and recreation resort for local residents, and the idea resonated. “The dam is only the beginning, and the possibilities for future development of Lake Modesto as a recreational center are unlimited,” proclaimed Mayor Lincoln L. Dennett, for whom the facility was named, in 1933.

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Today, solitary oaks and young cottonwood and willow trees line the banks of the Tuolumne River while traffic buzzes above on the Ninth Street Bridge. Below, what’s left of the dam can be seen after four years of drought. All the squat dam does is interfere with the river’s natural flow. It sits in its sad state – useless, ugly and, most importantly, tragic.

Three people, two of them children, have drowned there over a recent five-year period. The jagged rebar below the river’s surface accents the ongoing danger. Swimmers, some from a nearby mobile home park, still gather at the dam during hot summer months. They tempt fate with each visit.

“It (the dam) serves no purpose,” said Patrick Koepele, executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust. “It’s abandoned. Nobody wants it. It’s time for it to come out.”

Removing the dam has become a siren call for Koepele, a resident of Sonora who’s been involved with the TRT for the past 15 years. Money has been raised for the dam’s elimination since 2010. About $800,000 of the estimated $1.1 million price tag has been collected, thanks to donations from the State Lands Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Department of Water Resources, USA Fish and Wildlife Service and local agencies.

“I don’t think there is any way that this won’t happen,” said Koepele, who targets the actual removal for either next summer or the summer of 2017.

Such a project is not easy with all the planning and engineering concerns in an environmentally sensitive area. For the actual removal, small coffer dams must be built to channel the water away.

There’s no question that the dam is a blight and a human hazard. It also has encouraged the nearby growth of water hyacinth, a free-floating perennial plant that flourishes in warm river-flows. Last year, a thick mat of water hyacinth spanned the river and clogged it for about 300 yards.

As a result, the area is a partial barrier to fish passage. With the dam eliminated, salmon and steelhead will have unimpeded access to 37 miles of upstream habitat.

Koepele and his supporters envision a new ecosystem along the Tuolumne. Grace Davis High history teacher Chris Guptill, an avid outdoorsman, enjoys paddling the river on his kayak. But during a visit two years ago, he was appalled by the conditions – the trash along the banks, the hyacinth and, of course, the dam.

In fact, Guptill was spurred to action. He’s become the project coordinator for Operation 9-2-99, the cleanup project along the Tuolumne between the Ninth Street and Highway 99 bridges. He’s headed volunteer campaigns that have resulted in the removal of 94 tons of garbage, 300 shopping carts and 300 tires.

Guptill has removed much of the hyacinth with his own hands. Not surprisingly, he also endorses the dam’s exit.

“It’s gotta go. The danger it poses to people, and especially kids, is serious,” he said. “It’s such a beautiful stretch of the river. If we can restore it, people could enjoy it again.”

Looking back, Dennett’s words weren’t off-base. They just weren’t feasible for our time. The old dam washed out twice, and the demands of World War II prevented its rebuilding. The state condemned it in 1947, and the remnants serve as a reminder to the hopes of yesteryear.

Only those same hopes are echoed by today’s visionaries who see a clean and flowing Tuolumne, safe for fish, swimmers and boaters. It would complement the expansion of the nearby Tuolumne River Regional Park and, more or less, finalize the 1930s plan. The removal of the dam is a necessary step.

“Someday there’s going to be a park over there,” Koepele said, pointing toward the Tuolumne’s northern bank. “And we want it safe and looking nice. You don’t want ugly steel and metal next to your park.”


Removal of Dennet Dam. The dam is hazardous and has killed three people in the past few years, is dangerous for those kayaking and blocks salmon from swimming upstream. Of the $1.1 million needed, $800,000 has been raised.

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