Opinion Columns & Blogs

August 10, 2012

Wil Hunter: Don't be fooled; Lake McClure spillway project is a good thing

Merced Irrigation District has taken a significant step forward in its effort to increase water supply storage at Lake McClure. There still remains much work.

Merced Irrigation District has taken a significant step forward in its effort to increase water supply storage at Lake McClure. There still remains much work. In the meantime, a debt of gratitude is owed to all of our community supporters, our local legislators and other elected leaders.

I was pleased to talk to over 20 government and civic groups and appreciate all of the resolutions and letters of support they provided us and the legislature.

In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation as the first step in this lengthy process. Now we await action in the Senate. We could not have gotten this far without overwhelming support.

The facts are this clear and simple:

California's population swells and will not see a new dam built any time soon. In fact, San Francisco residents are considering an initiative to remove O'Shaughnessy Dam that stores their drinking water supply high in the Sierra Nevada.

MID's proposal would raise its spillways by up to 10 feet, not the dam.

In wet years, about every three years, MID would store an additional 70,000 acre-feet of water that could be carried forward into a dry year.

MID is requesting that the federal government recognize the district's original hydroelectric project boundary on the Merced River. The Wild and Scenic River Act boundary of the Merced River overlapped our existing project boundary in 1987, currently preventing MID from increasing its spillway.

Make no mistake, the increased supply of water would have a host of benefits for agriculture and our community; vital additional water supply, more clean, renewable hydroelectric generation, enhanced recreation and groundwater pumping relief and recharge are among them.

To understand the importance of this project we need look no further than the last two irrigation seasons. In 2011 MID essentially drained and refilled Lake McClure due to the extremely wet winter. On the other hand, 2012 marked one of the driest years on record. If MID had had the spillway project in place last year, MID would have had an additional 70,000 acre-feet of water this year -- a dry year.

MID would likely fill Lake McClure to its capacity approximately and could capture the additional 70,000 acre-feet of storage once every three years in a wet year. Again, the legislation fixes the boundary issues from 1987, whereby the Wild and Scenic boundary overlapped MID's existing federally designated hydroelectric project boundary on the river.

We absolutely acknowledge those who have raised concerns about the modification to the Wild and Scenic River Act. We continue to hold civil conversations with those who are willing.

Unfortunately, a few opponents from outside our community have pushed a host of scare tactics, slippery-slope arguments, fear mongering and outright lies about the effects of raising the spillways.

When those tactics didn't work in Washington, D.C., they turned their attention and tactics toward our own community. Organizations who don't care about this community have been attempting to plant the seed that our local farmers cannot afford a

$40 million project.

This is absurd. MID has built a 100 megawatt hydroelectric project, a $150 million electric utility and completed over

$100 million in other capital projects in its existence.

All have greatly benefited our community with reliable, affordable water and energy resources.

If the legislation should proceed, MID will implement a responsible capital improvement project plan for the spillway modification just as it has done for every other capital project it has completed.

Ask a local family farmer with permanent crops or dairy cattle if investing in a water future is something they would support. The answer will be a resounding "Yes! Where can I sign up?"

As MID works to advance the proposal in the Senate, I encourage you to contact your two U.S. senators who are currently reviewing the issue and have yet to take a formal position.

I also want to again thank the sponsor of the House bill, Congressman Jeff Denham, and all of the local and bipartisanship support we have seen from the community for this common sense proposal.

Hunter is vice president of the Merced Irrigation District.

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