Dave Long: Spillway project will hardly 'endanger' Merced River

April 20, 2013 


That is the only word to describe the news this week that American Rivers, based in Washington, D.C., has put the Merced River on its list of endangered rivers. The Merced is one of the most pristine and scenic rivers in the world.

More than 120 miles of the Merced River and its tributary streams are under the protection of the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, similar to the protections afforded under the National Park system.

Certainly there must be another river more deserving of an "endangered river" recognition than one with the strongest possible federal protections.

At issue is the Merced Irrigation District's proposal to increase its spillway gates by up to 10 feet at Lake McClure. Doing so would allow the district to capture up to an additional 70,000 acre feet of water during wet years to be put to use in dry years.

The project has numerous benefits. Among them are providing a more stable irrigation supply and helping recharge an aquifer used by the cities of Merced, Atwater and Livingston. This proposal is being made in addition to numerous other projects MID has already undertaken to conserve and re-use its water supplies.

The district's approach strikes a balance between conservation and making minor improvements to existing infrastructure to increase water supply.

If MID's spillway project were to move ahead, it would affect a mere 1,800 feet of the section of Merced River that is currently designated as "Wild and Scenic" near its confluence with Lake McClure.

This section of the river is approximately 30 miles away from Yosemite Valley. This would in no way affect the pristine and scenic nature of the Merced River.

For no more than 60 days -- once every three years or so -- would the small stretch of the river be affected. In fact, that same stretch of river is already inundated naturally during periods of heavy runoff and storm events. Further, this same section of river was originally designated as MID's project operating boundary by the federal government.

The proposed spillway improvements cannot be built without the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which licenses MID's hydroelectric project.

But FERC cannot even consider the spillway project because it would affect the last 1,800 feet of the river's "Wild and Scenic" designation. That's why legislation is necessary.

Rep. Tom McClintock has introduced a bipartisan bill, H.R. 934, that would move the "Wild and Scenic" boundary about a half-mile to coincide with Lake McClure's original FERC project boundary.

This would allow FERC to consider the merits of the spillway project in an open, public process that would examine all of the project's potential impacts. It does not in any way provide an automatic approval of the project.

The legislation has bipartisan support, including from Rep. Jim Costa, D-Merced.

MID's proposal apparently prompted the American Rivers organization to list the Merced River as one to "watch" on its list of endangered rivers. The list was published as other opponents of MID's proposal launched a public relations effort against the project that was keyed to a House hearing this week on Congressman McClintock's legislation. Look for more rhetoric to come as the legislation advances in Congress.

Here are the facts: more than 122 miles of the Merced River and its tributaries are designated "Wild and Scenic." The pending legislation would shorten that designation by half-a-mile where the river meets the reservoir known as Lake McClure and allow for the occasional brief inundation of a riverbed that is already inundated during naturally occurring high flows.

The facts are that the Merced River will not be "endangered" or put "at risk" or "drowned" by Rep. McClintock's legislation or MID's spillway project. Saying so is simply not credible.

The reason for the doom-and-gloom rhetoric is that some environmental groups believe that Congress should never change a "Wild and Scenic" boundary for any reason -- ever. They argue that allowing the tiny change suggested by MID could lead to the wholesale unraveling of the entire 12,500-mile Wild and Scenic River system. Come on. Does that really make sense? We don't think so.

The proposed half-mile change to the 122-mile-long Merced River "Wild and Scenic" corridor is not an assault on the Merced River or on the national Wild and Scenic River System.

MID is seeking nothing more than a fair hearing on a relatively modest -- but important -- water efficiency project that we believe will benefit our entire community while causing little, if any, real environmental impact.

Long is vice president of the Merced Irrigation District board of directors.

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