Don’t Damage the Wild and Scenic Merced River
Today’s guest blog about the “Special Mention” Merced River- a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series- is from Dr. Michael Martin and Dr. Ralph Mendershausen. Dr. Michael Martin, a resident of Mariposa County, is a retired California Department of Fish and Wildlife toxicologist, an adjunct professor at City University in Hong Kong, and Chairman of the Merced River Conservation Committee.
Dr. Ralph Mendershausen, also a resident of Mariposa County, was the founder of the Merced Canyon Committee that successfully sought designation of the lower Merced River and South Fork into the Wild and Scenic River System. He is an avid outdoorsman, hiker, and whitewater rafting enthusiast.
Based on our 40 years of experience fishing and paddling the Merced River, we fully agree with American Rivers on including the Merced River as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2013. The Merced Irrigation District’s (MID) proposal would raise the storage reservoir (in the wettest years) by 10 feet, and flood part of the Merced that is protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
The Merced River works hard for Mariposa County— providing many jobs and opportunities to hike, bike, fish, boat, and swim. In our more adrenaline-charged years, we would spend weeks pursuing big trout or huge standing waves. We both fish and paddle throughout the U.S. and abroad, and one thing is crystal clear— the Merced is the best in the world. Let’s not let special interest groups destroy one of our most important economic and recreational areas.
In the past, MID indicated that the existing New Exchequer Dam would provide enough water for the foreseeable future. But today, MID says they need this reservoir expansion project. What did they not see then that has changed now?
Since neither feasibility nor engineering studies have been conducted by MID, the project managers and the public have no idea how much the proposed reservoir expansion could cost. However, we do know that expanding McClure Reservoir would require raising or relocating the Highway 49 Bridge at Bagby.
Furthermore, raising the dam itself would have to be done in a way that passes dam safety regulations. Both projects would likely prove to be very expensive. Undoubtedly, expanding McClure Reservoir could cost millions of “unanticipated” dollars, with MID ratepayers, and perhaps state and federal taxpayers, footing the bill.
It is getting harder for MID to minimize the costs of this project while speculating about its benefits. For starters, the lake does not fill often enough to warrant this expensive scheme to hold slightly more water. The proposed scheme would yield a paltry average annual gain of 10,000 acre feet, less than 2.5% of their average water use.
Will the additional water really go to Merced farmers or be sold to distant water users, such as Westlands Water District or others, at the highest prices? Indeed, this may be more about selling water for money than “providing more water to growers” (in Merced County), as MID claims.
MID has not done the work to support their proposal. They want critical Wild and Scenic protections for the Merced River removed before they have demonstrated that their proposed project is viable. The burden of proof for viability of their proposal lies with them, not the public or federal government.
Rep. McClintock, who introduced HR 934 that would remove Wild and Scenic protections from the Merced in anticipation of a future MID project, is very poorly informed and is making factually incorrect statements. He suggests he wants to “correct” overlapping boundaries of Wild and Scenic and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission jurisdiction. These boundaries were no mistakes. In fact, MID’s Board of Directors unanimously supported these boundaries in 1991.
Rep. McClintock has also stated that changing the Wild and Scenic boundary is necessary to study MID’s proposed project. Not true. Nothing prevents MID from conducting the studies they need to determine if their project is feasible. More than 50 local, state, and national organizations and recreational businesses (whitewater rafting) are opposed to HR 934 for the following reasons:
- Raising the dam would only increase MID’s annual water supply by about 2.5%, and there are several feasible alternatives to fill this need, including irrigation and municipal water conservation, more efficient canal delivery systems, storing water in groundwater aquifers, and storing water in reservoirs that are constructed off of the Merced River.
- Passage of H.R. 934 would set a terrible precedent as the first time a Wild and Scenic River boundary is changed to raise a dam.
- Moving the Wild and Scenic boundary would break the deal that MID supported when Congress added the Merced to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1992.
- The Merced River and Mariposa County are gateways to Yosemite National Park, and removing Wild and Scenic protections could threaten the many jobs supported by the river.
- The Wild Merced provides important habitat for the rare limestone salamander, which exists nowhere else in the world. Expanding the reservoir would not only flood part of the salamander’s habitat, but would violate state law.
- If MID expands the reservoir as proposed, the water level would be only one foot below the crest of the earth fill dam, creating dangerous potential for catastrophic dam failure under flood conditions. MID has not provided a dam safety analysis of its proposal or submitted its proposal for review by state dam safety officials.
Lend your voice to this effort to protect the Merced River! Please tell your Representative to OPPOSE HR 934 and protect our nation’s last free-flowing rivers!