America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2013: Merced River

California

At Risk: Wildlife habitat and recreation economy
Threat: Intentional Flooding of a Wild and Scenic River

Merced River, CA | Erick Gustafson

Tell Congress to oppose the bill that would strip away Wild & Scenic protections for part of the Merced River to raise a dam.

The Wild and Scenic Merced River is a special destination for paddlers, anglers, and hikers, and is home to a variety of fish and wildlife, including a rare salamander.  These outstanding values are threatened by a proposal to raise the New Exchequer Dam, which would flood a stretch of river and wildlife habitat.

Congress must halt  legislative proposals to remove Wild and Scenic protections for the purpose of  raising  the dam. Removing protections would degrade this special place for a very minor amount of water storage capacity, and set a dangerous precedent for Wild and Scenic Rivers across the country.

The Threat

Merced River, CA | Marc Briggs

The Merced Irrigation District is seeking to remove long-standing Wild and Scenic River protections from a section of the Merced River to pursue raising a spillway at New Exchequer Dam and inundate a stretch of one of California’s most remarkable rivers.  Representative Tom McClintock has introduced legislation (H.R. 934) that would accomplish this attack on the Wild and Scenic Merced.  If the U.S. Congress passes legislation in favor of removing protections from the Merced River, it would mark the first time a federal Wild and Scenic River is essentially de-designated for the purpose of raising a dam.

The proposed raising of New Exchequer’s spillway by 10 feet would allow Merced Irrigation District to deliver only 2.5 percent more water in an average year.  In return, a beautiful recreational and ecological haven would be drowned.  In addition, Merced Irrigation District does not need this legislation to conduct the studies necessary to determine whether it is feasible to raise the spillway.  It is not clear whether their proposal will meet dam safety concerns, be economically feasible, or comply with state law.  It makes no sense to permanently remove Wild and Scenic protections for the Merced before anyone knows if the district’s proposed project is even feasible.

Raising the dam would also harm the limestone salamander, which is listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act and has been given “fully protected” status, meaning salamanders and their habitat cannot be harmed at all.  The limestone salamander is found in the area surrounding the reservoir, and would certainly be harmed by the proposed raise, in violation of state law.

Not only would H.R. 934 roll back protections for a stretch of the Wild and Scenic Merced River, but it would set a dangerous precedent for other Wild and Scenic rivers across the country.  Less than 0.25% of our nation’s rivers and streams are protected as Wild and Scenic— citizens fought hard for their protection, and we have a responsibility to ensure their legacy lives on for future generations.

What Must Be Done

Congress must prevent any attempts to weaken Wild and Scenic protections for the Merced River by rejecting bills such as H.R. 934.  Not only would raising the New Exchequer Dam flood a stretch of one of California’s magnificent rivers for a small increase of water storage, but this project would also endanger the existence of the limestone salamander and negatively impact recreation. 

Removing a Wild and Scenic designation to raise a dam sets a bad precedent for protected rivers across the country— namely that it is acceptable to flood a Wild and Scenic River, supposedly protected in perpetuity, in order to raise a dam.  California is facing a second year of limited water supply due to a below average Sierra snowpack, and this will cause hardship for many in the state.  However, the proposed project would not contribute meaningfully toward solving the state’s longer-term water challenges.  The benefits from raising the New Exchequer Dam are small, and the impacts to the Merced River and the integrity of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System are simply not worth the consequences.