Future of dams could pit farms against fish

Most of this scenic river's 122-mile-route runs below two of Merced Irrigation District's dams -- the McSwain and New Exchequer. The very life of the river depends on how much water these dams release and when.

That relationship may change. In 2014 the irrigation district's federal license to operate the dams expires. Most expect the license to be reissued -- but environmentalists hope that the new license will change the way the river has been managed. Much of their concern is about the health of the river's fish.

When the license was first issued in 1964 by the Federal Power Authority, now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the licensing process paid little heed to environmental concerns. But since the 1980s, when environmental groups were given a seat at the licensing table, dam operators have had to realign their operations to include ecological concerns.

What that means for MID, local farmers and their water supply has yet to be seen. What is certain is that this licensing process, like most of the state's water wars, will continue to pit farms against fish.

"The big risk to us is a loss of water supply," says Ken Robbins, MID's legal counsel.

MID's director, Dan Pope, says MID hopes to come to a fair compromise with all parties. He hopes to strike a balance that gives to federal agencies and environmental groups, but still allows continued use of water for farming and electricity.

But that doesn't mean he isn't worried. "One of our largest concerns would be the loss of water supply," said Pope. Another effect of less water could also limit the dam's ability to generate electricity, he said.

Keith Nakatani, director of the California Hydropower Reform Coalition, said that through the licensing process his group hopes to make the river's health a mandatory aspect of MID's dam management.

What this means is simple: more water for fish. "Overall what we are trying to do is to get increased flows," he said.

But, said Nakatani, groups like his only want flows to mimic the natural seasonal nature of the river. That doesn't always have to equal bad news for farmers.

The reason Nakatani wants the Merced River to flow more like the way it did before it was dammed up is because of the sorry health of its fish and California's fisheries.

Today, Merced River's salmon and steelhead are in bad shape, says Chris Shutes of the California Sportsfishing Alliance. "The fish are not in good condition right now," he says.

Last fall's salmon run was dangerously low, he said.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the salmon and steelhead runs on the Merced River are 10 percent below average.

As the licensing process moves forward, a major sticking point has already arisen -- the size of the area to be considered. MID wants to limit the scope of the license to its reservoirs. Environmentalists want it to encompass as much of the watershed as possible because the extent of the dam's effects are wider than just the reservoirs.

Whatever is agreed upon during the licensing process, by 2014 it's clear there will be changes. Whether those will include both healthy fish and happy farmers or a less comprehensive result remains to be seen.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or jlamb@mercedsun-star.com.

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