By: Ron Stork, FOR Policy Director, Friends of the River
March 7, 2013 - The opening battle for the integrity of the National Wild & Scenic River System in the 113th Congress began on March 4, 2013, with the introduction of HR 934 by Representative Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove). Like its predecessor, HR 2578 in the previous Congress, HR 934 would de-designate a portion of the Merced River to accommodate an expanded McClure Reservoir.
In his press release announcing the bill, Rep. McClintock characterized the National Wild & Scenic River System, our nation's premier tool for preserving our natural river heritage, as just "truly outrageous bureaucratic red tape."
The bill introduction was quickly followed by another Modesto Bee editorial in favor of de-designating the Merced because, to borrow again from Rep. McClintock, it represented a "desperately needed resource" and that de-designating a National Wild & Scenic River to replace free-flowing water with a reservoir for the first time in our nation's history does not represent a dangerous precedent to other rivers in the system. Because of this, the Merced Irrigation District needs to be free to study raising their dam.
Well, nice rhetoric, but a little short on understanding.
The Merced River is already extensively exploited. The new yield potentially available from the proposed raise is just 2.5% of what the District typically diverts into its canals, and that doesn't even take into account its waters diverted downstream of its confluence with the San Joaquin.
Exchequer Dam has never spilled over its ungated spillway. With full reservoirs, 32 miles of the Merced River already lie beneath Merced Irrigation District and PG&E reservoirs. And in a long series of its annual reports at the time of the W&S designation, the District asserted:
"The district now has virtual control of the waters of the Merced as long as such waters are put to beneficial use and it is assured of an adequate irrigation supply for the foreseeable future."
And yes, they sell water to west side out-of-district farmers every chance they get.
Go right ahead and study
Nothing in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act prevents the District from "studying" raising the dam. When they do, they will discover some inconvenient facts: (1) their plan could result in a collapse of their dam and could never pass a dam-safety review, (2) that their costs will also include raising the Hwy 49 bridge and dealing with their dam-safety problems, costs that far exceed the initial estimates they tout to the Bee, and (3) that expanding their reservoir is impermissible under state law protecting the fully protected Merced River limestone salamander, a creature found nowhere else on earth. And that's just the problems that they will have with the State of California.
Precedent. You've got the wrong messengers
The bill's authors can't seem to stay on the "don't worry, this won't ever happen again" message that the Modesto Bee is touting. Last year, Rep Denham, the author of HR 2578, informed his Congressional colleagues that "We should be able to adjust those boundaries, especially if it serves the greater good" while at the same time saying, "We need many more projects like this." Maybe not exactly on message, eh?
And Rep McClintock has never seen a dam proposal he didn't like. He's trying to hold flood-control projects for the state capital hostage for Auburn dam, and he recently told a crowd in Sonora when asked about the twin-tunnel proposal to deliver water to the west-side farms and the South State, he said:
"I've taken a strong stand in Washington, no additional conveyance without additional storage. This business of sucking this region dry of water without producing additional water supplies for this region is an absolute outrage. All that does is transfer a water shortage from Southern California to Northern California and by God that's not going to happen."
Good rhetoric for a new Northern California Congressman from Southern California. He's probably right to be concerned about the tunnels, but what's all this business about new storage? Could it mean a new dam, reservoir, or diversion is coming to a river near you if Rep. McClintock has his way? And is the National Wild & Scenic River System just "truly outrageous bureaucratic red tape" as Rep. McClintock says? And should we really accept the Bee's assurances that breaking the "permanent" in "permanent protection" would not jeopardize the System when the list of co-sponsors includes the Majority Whip of the House of Representatives?
The Modesto Bee seems a little short on evidence. You might tell them to check out the Friends of the River website. They might learn something.
Time to take up the pen. Democracy is not a spectator sport.
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