Looking over the water flowing down Bear Creek on Thursday, area leaders touted a new law signed by President Barack Obama that they say will go a long way toward helping in the driest of years.
Called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, it is expected to pool $558 million for water storage, water recycling and desalination projects. The president signed it Dec. 16.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, noted the hundreds of thousands of acres of agriculture land that has gone fallow in farming communities in the San Joaquin Valley while the state dealt with the historic drought.
“The newly enacted law provides funding and implements policies that will enable the city, county and irrigation districts of Merced to move forward with important water projects to strengthen their water supply reliability,” he said. “It will also create additional resilience to the future droughts we know are sure to come and will provide more protection to areas that have been damaged during the rare years of flooding.”
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The newly enacted law provides funding and implements policies that will enable the city, county and irrigation districts of Merced to move forward with important water projects to strengthen their water supply reliability.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno
Area leaders were in Merced on Thursday to tout the new bill that funds California desalination, recycling and reuse projects, as well as, potentially, the proposed Temperance Flat dam on the San Joaquin River and Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley. It makes it easier for the incoming presidential administration to build new water projects, and it steers more water to farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
In Merced County, the bill authorizes a feasibility study for the Merced Streams Group, which will evaluate and provide recommendations for the 50-year flood plan, adding a higher standard of protection, leaders said.
The bill’s detractors, such as Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, have said the law is “dangerous,” a “disgrace,” a “power grab” and could destroy the Endangered Species Act.
Provisions in the law also allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study raising the spillway gates of the New Exchequer Dam to allow up to an additional 57,000 acre-feet at Lake McClure, which has a water storage capacity of about 1 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover an acre of land 1 foot deep, or about 325,900 gallons.
$558 million The law’s funding for water storage, water recycling and desalination projects
The legislation is significant for the ongoing effort to complete the New Exchequer Storage Enhancement Project, according to Hicham ElTal, deputy general manager for water supply for the Merced Irrigation District. He said carrying 50,000 to 57,000 more acre-feet from one year to the next will be most significant when the state is parched.
“In a critically dry year like 2014, 57,000 acre-feet is quite significant,” he said. “It’s these critical years that this water makes a big difference.”
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that it has earmarked a $10 million grant for Merced’s Black Rascal Creek Project, which is supposed to add improvements in flood control, water quality and soil quality, as well as support wildlife habitat
“The $10 million for the Merced Streams Group will fund a long-overdue feasibility study to improve the flood protection along Bear Creek and Black Rascal Creek,” Merced Mayor Mike Murphy said. “We need that study to devise a solution to protect the lives and property of city and county residents.”
It will be a big difference in a dry year.
Hicham ElTal, deputy general manager for water supply for Merced Irrigation District
The study was authorized in 1944 but has never been finished, Murphy said. There have been eight floods in the area since 1997.
Los Banos farmer Joe Del Bosque of Empresas Del Bosque Inc., who showed about 500 acres of fallowed land to President Obama during a 2014 visit, said the bill allows farms more water without harming the environment.
He said communities including Mendota, Dos Palos and other small towns that are populated by farmworkers are hit particularly hard.
“Water is crucial for our farms to produce food, and for years we have been unfairly deprived of a sustainable supply,” he said. “Our farmworkers and communities have suffered hardships and unreliable employment.”
This story has been updated to correct that the provision in the federal law will allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study raising the spillway gates of the New Exchequer Dam.