WASHINGTON — A politically difficult bill allowing the expansion of Lake McClure will now test whether Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, has learned how to move the levers of California water.
As chairman of the House water and power subcommittee, McClintock can showcase his favorite issues. He did so Thursday, presenting to another House panel his legislation allowing potential expansion of Lake McClure by the Merced Irrigation District.
But as he enters into his second term as panel chairman, and his fourth decade in political life, the 56-year-old McClintock remains largely unproven in his ability to pass a congressional bill into law. The Lake McClure legislation offers another shot, albeit one with definite challenges that face the broader California congressional delegation anytime water arises.
"As water and electricity supplies become tighter and more expensive the necessity of this project should become increasingly clear even to the most hard-hearted environmentalists and bureaucrats," McClintock said Thursday.
His brief bill would remove somewhat under half a mile of the Merced River from federal wild and scenic protection. Currently, about 122 miles of the river are designated under the law.
By removing roughly 1,800 feet of the river from federal designation, Merced Irrigation District officials could consider the option of raising the New Exchequer Dam by up to 10 feet. If given approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission during New Exchequer relicensing, and built at an estimated cost of $40 million, this would increase water storage during wet years, temporarily inundating part of the river.
"A project that can provide tens of thousands of acre-feet of new water to the San Joaquin Valley at no federal cost certainly bears consideration," Deputy General Manager Bryan Kelly of the Merced Irrigation District told the House public lands and environmental regulation subcommittee Thursday.
Environmentalists oppose the legislation, which would mark the first time Congress has withdrawn part of a river from wild and scenic status since the Wild and Scenic River Act passed in 1968. Ron Stork, policy director of the Sacramento-based Friends of the River, said "Congress knew exactly what it was doing" when it set aside the Merced River for protection.
An Interior Department official testified Thursday that more study is needed.
"The full implications of (the bill) are not clear, but the potential impacts from inundation could be substantial to both natural resources and local economies," said Ned Farquhar, the Interior Department's deputy assistant secretary for land and mineral management.
McClintock said Thursday that he was "baffled" at why the Obama administration would take what he called the "unreasonable" and "extreme" position that wild and scenic status should never be reconsidered once it's been granted. Citing electricity shortfalls as well as the San Joaquin Valley's high unemployment, he pressed for the Lake McClure legislation as a way to address changing circumstances.
"The government," McClintock said, "seems to be standing in the way."
Neither of California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have said they support the Lake McClure bill and remain in a wait-and-see position. Without in-state Senate support, any water bill is almost certain to dry up; and this, in turn, spotlights how it's easier to introduce a bill than to maneuver its way to final passage.