On June 19 HR 2578, a collection of 13 mostly poorly conceived measures passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 232 to 188. Title 1 of the bill would remove a segment of the Merced Wild & Scenic River from the system to allow for potential expansion of McClure Reservoir.
Before the election, or after the election in a lame-duck session, under Senate rules the bill may be taken up by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and, if reported out of committee, then proceed to the full Senate. Please encourage your home senators and Senator Feinstein (D-CA) (she has supported the thrust of title 1), Senator Boxer (D-CA) (longtime Wild and Scenic River proponent, position unknown on this issue); Senator Bingaman (D-NM) (Chair, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee); and Senator Reid (D-NV) (Senate Majority Leader):
Oppose and vote no on HR 2578 and its first-ever undesignation of a national wild & scenic river.
No matter who wins the White House or controls Congress this issue will not be going away—after the election it is likely to be reintroduced in the House, and a key Senator, Senator Feinstein of California, has, so far, continued to voice her support for allowing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to license the proposed reservoir expansion on what is now a permanently protected river.
FOR was deeply involved in the initial Wild and Scenic designation of the Merced River in 1987 and again in 1992 when the river segments . For more than a year, Friends of the River (FOR) has led a coalition of environmental groups in an ongoing campaign to defend the most downstream reach of Yosemite’s river, the Wild and Scenic Merced, from flooding by a Merced Irrigation District (Merced ID) Spillway-raise Project (Spillway Project).
The next milestone is the potential consideration of the bill by the Senate in coming months. Should Title 1 of HR2578 pass the Senate, it would be the first revocation of Wild and Scenic designation in order to inundate a reach for water-supply and hydro-power purposes. This would be a terrible precedent, and we will oppose it vigorously for as long as it takes.
An important element of opposition to the bill is letters to U.S. Senators. Between now (September 2012) and the defeat of this bill and abandonment of the project, FOR is encouraging letters (Take Action) to senators, emphasizing various reasons why the bill should be defeated and the project abandoned.
OVERVIEW: Regulatory and Legislative Path to Passage of HR 2578 in the House. The Merced Irrigation District (Merced ID) is relicensing New Exchequer Dam for the first time in 50 years. Early relicensing documents, including the District’s Pre Application Document (PAD) and FERC’s Scoping Document 1 (SD-1) [FOR's comments] , mentioned the District’s desire to increase the size of Lake McClure Reservoir by approximately 10 feet by raising Exchequer Dam’s spillway gates and emergency spillway. Raising the gates and spillway would cause a 10' increase in maximum lake level, from 867 to 877'. However, it should be understood that Merced ID has not put provided a project description for review by responsible agencies and the public.
The 1992 Act incorporating the Lower Merced in the Wild and Scenic River System protects the Merced River from a reservoir expansion while at the same time assuring Merced ID that it can operate and relicense its dams so long as it does not seek to expand its reservoir to more than its existing maximum normal operating level of 867 feet above sea level. Fortunately, consistent with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Department of the Interior (the river’s wild & scenic river manager for this portion of the Merced) has determined that Federal agencies cannot consider Merced ID’s proposed Spillway Modification Project as part of its relicensing effort. [W&S excerpts]
In response to requests from the District, in 2011 Representative Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) sponsored a bill, HR 869, to allow the reservoir to normal maximum pool to elevation 877', approximately a half mile of the Merced River National Wild and Scenic River above 867'.
FOR’s Ron Stork traveled to Washington, D.C. and testified against passage of this bill. [Ron's testimony]
Perhaps in response to the critical response to HR 869 from the Department of the Interior and environmental groups, Representative Denham introduced a revised bill, HR 2578. HR 2578 (as introduced and passed by the House Natural Resources Committee) replaced HR 869 and would undesignate a potentially affected reach of the Merced River up to the map coordinates of the existing FERC project boundaries, boundaries that Merced ID believes are around 877'.
Early this year FOR led a coalition of about fifty conservation groups and other affected organizations in writing and sending two joint letters to the Congress: first to Senator Feinstein to ask her not to attach, without a Senate hearing, a de-designation bill to a “must-pass” appropriations (spending) bill, and another to encourage House members to vote against HR 2758. In response, Senator Feinstein pledged to not introduce an appropriations rider “at this time.”
On June 19, 2012, HR 2578, now a collection of 13 mostly ill-conceived measures, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 232 to 188. Title 1 of the bill (the Committee’s HR 2578) is HR 2578 as introduced and reported out of committee, de-designating a segment of the Merced Wild & Scenic River to allow for future expansion of McClure Reservoir.
The measure, so far, has not been taken up by the Senate, but Senator Feinstein, one of California’s U.S. Senators, has expressed her support for providing FERC the authority to license the expanded reservoir. It could be taken up at any time the Senate is in session, either in the Committee of jurisdiction, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, or, without a hearing and in violation of Senate Rules, as a rider in a must-pass spending (appropriations) bill.
WILD AND SCENIC MERCED The Merced, Yosemite’s River, begins in Yosemite National Park. Within the Park, the river gathers and flows through a stunning landscape of glaciated peaks, lakes, and alpine and subalpine meadows and over two world-famous waterfalls and into Yosemite Valley. Leaving the park in a series of cascades and rapids the river flows free and essentially undiverted for 22 miles of spring-wildflower-strewn canyon before it is swallowed by McClure Reservoir behind Exchequer Dam.
From there, twenty-four miles of river lie impounded under Lake McClure and McSwain Reservoirs, quickly followed by another four miles of slowed or still water behind two small diversion reservoirs that divert half the average flow of the Merced into nearby fields. Then what remains of the mighty Merced travels the hundred miles or so through its historic channel and into the remains of the San Joaquin River, dodging diversions large and small as a small trickle of it finds its way to the sea.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1969: “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation… which possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition… and shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
The Wild and Scenic Rivers System (National or State) is our nation’s principal national system to protect the free-flowing character of some of our nation’s most outstanding rivers.
The Merced River upstream of Lake McClure Reservoir was designated as a National Wild & Scenic River in 1987 and 1992 by the Congress and Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush, Respectively. The latter designation enjoyed the full support of the Merced Irrigation District (Merced ID) Board of Directors (by unanimous vote), Mariposa County, and environmental groups. [See a Merced W&S River timeline]
OUTSTANDINGLY REMARKABLE VALUES The Merced was designated a Wild and Scenic river based on its free-flowing high-quality waters and its outstanding and remarkable values: recreation, including hiking and whitewater boating; wildlife, including bald eagle habitat and the unique limestone salamander; vegetation; and scenery. [See BLM Merced ORVs]
The Merced offers high-quality whitewater boating through Recreational, Wild and Scenic and—just above the reservoir—Wild reaches of river. Commercial whitewater outfitters offer visitors to Yosemite Valley an additional day or two of vigorous and exciting recreation. There are about a half a dozen outfitters who take about 7,000 visitors down the river every year, bringing significant revenue to Mariposa County.
In addition to these values, the reach above Bagby provides hiking and biking trails and camping on river left at Bagby.
EXCHEQUER DAM SPILLWAY RAISE PROJECT New Exchequer Dam on the Merced River forms Lake McClure, which at full pool has a capacity of 1,024,000 Acre feet (af). (An acre foot will cover a little more than the goal-line to goal-line expanse of an American football field with one acre of water). Average annual runoff above Exchequer Dam is about 975,000 af. At full pool, McClure Reservoir buries 19 miles of this large foothill river. Downstream, three other smaller dams impound and block another nine miles of river.
New Exchequer Dam consists of four main structures. The main dam is a rock-fill structure 470' high and about 1200' long. New Exchequer Dike, a 62' high, 1,500' long earth and rock dike is located in a saddle north of the dam. North of that, the gated spillway consists of six radial gates that are 40' wide and 30' deep. The un-gated, emergency spillway is 11.3 feet deep and about 1,080' long.
Today, the top of the radial gates when fully closed and the lip of the spillway are 11.3' below the crest of the main dam. The spillway-raise proposal would add 10' to the top of the radial gates, and would add 10' to the crest of the un-gated spillway. As a cost-saving measure, incredibly, Merced ID does not propose to raise the main dam. The raise would add about 70,000 acre feet of storage to the reservoir. Based on the historical record, there is projected to be sufficient runoff in the watershed to take advantage of the new storage volume, partially or fully, in about 1/3 of all years. The generally-agreed calculated “new yield” of the reservoir is about 12,000 acre feet per year (long-term average).
PROJECTED PROJECT YIELD OF “NEW” WATER Today the yield (as measured by deliveries through downstream Merced ID diversion dams and canals) of the McClure Reservoir averages about 500,000 acre feet. Additional water re-regulated by the dam is diverted or recharges aquifers downstream of Merced ID. Most of all of this water is used by agriculture. The new yield provided by the proposed project is about 2.5% of Merced ID’s diversions, and represents even less of a fraction of the yield of the project when other diverters are considered.
A visual reference is provided by comparing a pint jar, representing a new yield to Merced ID, and a five-gallon bucket, today’s yield diverted into Merced ID facilities.
PROJECT COST Merced Irrigation claims that the capital cost of this additional 12,000 acre feet of yield will be $40,000,000, a capital cost similar to the Department of Water Resources’ proposed Sites Reservoir, a project that may not find a beneficiary willing or capable to finance it. Almost certainly, the District’s cost estimate does not include the cost of raising the large CalTrans Highway 49 bridge at Bagby that crosses the reservoir. Nor does it include the cost of a traditional dam-safety-aware raise, where all of the dams and spillways would be raised in order to preserve the safety margin of a passive emergency spillway to ensure that water does not overtop a dam that is not designed to withstand overtopping.
DOES SPILLWAY RAISE ENDANGER PUBLIC SAFETY? New Exchequer Dam was designed in the early 1960s. Its design was based on engineering safety standards developed by Federal and state dam engineers, including the U S Army Corps of Engineers and the US Bureau of Reclamation during the heyday of dam building in the U.S. These dam-safety design standards are enforced by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and by the CA Division of Safety of Dams (DSOD), a division of CA Department of Water Resources (DWR).
When the dam was designed, engineering safety standards, accepted then and now across the U.S., resulted in an 11.3' fail-safe margin of safety against Exchequer dam overtopping and failure. In a very large runoff event, accompanied by failure of the radial gates, water could conceivably overtop the gated and un-gated spillways. Because of the 11.3' safety margin built in as a part of good engineering design practice, that water would have to rise to 11.3' deep across a 1080-foot-long spillway before it reached the top of the dam.
If the spillways were raised by 10', the margin of safety against overtopping and dam failure would be only 1.3'. Calls to the Division of Safety of Dams and discussions with DSOD regarding the project provide no indication that the Merced ID, or Representative Denham or Senator Feinstein or Senator Boxer, have conferred with any dam-safety authority regarding whether or not the spillway raise will comply with engineering safety requirements.
In addition, a reservoir that when full is only 1.3' from a dam-safety emergency is also the kind of reservoir that would require operators to undertake fairly serious measures to avoid overtopping—including making releases higher than the ordinary maximum release (objective release) from the reservoir—when inflows into a full or nearly full dam exceed the ordinary maximum release. Thus, small communities and farms downstream may find themselves experiencing unusually high flood flows more frequently.
Without the benefit of formal analysis by appropriate state dam-safety engineers, it is reasonable to conclude that the project reduces the safety margin against overtopping and dam failure in some standard dam-safety scenarios from 11.3' to 1.3', or 88%, in addition to resulting in more frequent flows higher than floodway infrastructure has been designed to accommodate.
Is a very small gain in yield, no more than 2 ½ %, worth an 88% decrease in the margin of safety against overtopping and dam failure in many crucial circumstances?
WOULD THE PROJECT ENDANGER THE BAGBY BRIDGE? The red arrow points to elevation 867 feet (current Maximum high-water mark), and the blue arrow points to elevation 877 feet (proposed high-water mark without flood surcharge, i.e., when the reservoir is not flowing over the emergency spillway).
At full pool, and certainly during surcharge operations during a large storm, the steel portions of Bagby bridge could be subject to impacts from large logs, endangering its structural integrity and safety.
Just as there is no evidence that the Merced ID and Congressional proponents have discussed dam-safety issues with DSOD, there is no evidence that the proponents have discussed bridge integrity and safety with CalTrans, the owner of this bridge that serves Highway 49.
Note that the bridge would also block navigation for a considerable portion of its length when the reservoir is full, a situation that does not occur now (at least for smaller boats).
DIRECT, PERMANENT DAMAGE Increasing the maximum pool and the resulting “bathtub ring” of McClure Reservoir would cause permanent damage to vegetation, wildlife, and recreation along about a half a mile of the Merced River, and all along the shore of McClure Reservoir. Further damaging recreational opportunities, campgrounds, including the large campground at Bagby, would be inundated and made unusable.
In testimony before Congress, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) described the impacts of a spillway raise: “Among the potential resource implications of this inundation are habitat loss for both the limestone salamander (a California designated Fully Protected Species) and the elderberry longhorn beetle (a federally listed threatened species under the Endangered Species Act)…Inundation would include the destruction of thousands of individual BLM sensitive listed plants and their seed banks. Habitat for the yellow-legged frog, a BLM sensitive species, would be inundated from reservoir levels backing up and into the Sherlock Creek drainage. Impacts would also include loss of riparian vegetation and degradation of the scenic values of the corridor. Additionally, significant cultural and historic resources in the area, including the remains of the Yosemite Valley Railroad and historic gold-mining sites would be degraded.
“A variety of recreation activities within the river corridor could also be impacted by the legislation. For whitewater boaters, inundation would add another one and a quarter mile and half mile to an already arduous paddle across flat water to an alternate take-out. In addition to boaters, the canyon is becoming increasingly utilized as a recreational destination for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrian riders who could be displaced by a likely inundation of five miles of the existing Merced River trail.”
The CA Dept. of Fish and Game (DFG) is concerned about the impact of the spillway raise on the Limestone Salamander: As noted by DFG in their letter to the ranking member of the House National Parks Subcommittee, the limestone salamander is “one of California’s rare and endemic” species. It is “threatened under the California Endangered Species Act” and is, in addition, “a Fully Protected Species (FPS) under California state law.” Fully protected species may not be killed under state law. Merced ID studies have found limestone salmanders in the area that would be inundated by a raised reservoir. Limestone salamanders seek refuge within talus slopes, including those around the reservoir, during dry and hot conditions, times when snowmelt is filling the reservoir. Limestone salamanders are not aquatic salamanders; they are fully terrestrial and thus may be drowned. These salamanders may aestivate (enter summer dormancy) in shoreline talus and thus be especially vulnerable to drowning by reservoir inundations. Their eggs, laid within shoreline talus, may also be killed by reservoir inundation, something that eggs cannot escape. Again, in its understated way, DFG notes, “given the known locations of limestone salamanders around the existing reservoir and immediately upstream [sic., upslope] of the reservoir, some level of impact to this species from the dam raising is likely.” In other words, raising McClure Reservoir is likely to be illegal under California law.
CONFUSED RHETORIC FROM MERCED ID AND REP. DENHAM Oddly, the Merced ID and its supporters make much that the FERC project boundary for its existing project extends into the upstream wild & scenic river corridor, implying that this is somehow unusual and in ordinary circumstances should make it somehow pre-approved to store water there. This implication is untrue. The National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act prohibits dams from storing waters into wild and scenic rivers. It does not prevent FERC from establishing administrative boundaries for projects in wild & scenic river corridors. In fact, since FERC typically establishes project boundaries some distance away from project works and reservoirs, it is common for FERC administrative and wild and scenic river boundaries to overlap.
WHAT THE UN-DESIGNATION PRECEDENT COULD MEAN FOR OTHER WILD AND SCENIC RIVERS Removal of Wild and Scenic protection from a reach on the Merced could set a precedent that could jeopardize the Kings, Tuolumne, Middle Feather and Eel rivers, as well as other rivers protected by wild & scenic river or national park status across the nation. “It’s a small step,” Denham said. “We need thousands of jobs in the Central Valley, and we need many more projects like this.”
If Representative Denham succeeds in breaking the “permanent” in “permanent protection,” his ideas could be coming soon to a river near you.
MERG (Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government) has put together a great webpage with discusions on HR 2578 and the impacts on the Wild Merced River and it's enviornment that would be caused by MID's plan to raise New Exchequer Dam. Follow this link to visit their Merced River page, it is a must read!
Washington, D.C. June 20, 2012: FOR expects that HR 2578 will be sent to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. For a list of the full committee and links to their official website click here (word document.)
JUNE 19, 2012 - House votes 232-189 to drown the Wild Merced. Stay tuned for more - this battle is not yet over! See how your member voted. Read an annotated June 19, 2012 Fresno Bee online article on the vote.
June 14, 2012: The House of Representatives is set to vote on a bill that would remove federal protection from a segment of the Merced Wild & Scenic River to allow for raising the New Exchequer Dam. H.R. 2578 by Rep. Jeff Denham is the first serious attempt by Congress to remove Wild & Scenic protection from a federal river for a dam and could undo almost 45 years of bi-partisan work building a legacy of free-flowing rivers for future generations of Americans. Read the factsheet on this very bad bill.
Washington, D.C. May 17, 2012: FOR’s sources believe that Senator Feinstein will insert the Merced River Wild & Scenic rollback bill (HR 2578) as an amendment to an appropriations bill at the next opportunity, such as the pending Department of the Interior appropriations bill.
Senator Feinstein’s staff denies that they intend to use the Interior appropriations bill as a vehicle to de-designate the Merced’s National Wild & Scenic River status. However, they are continuing to send a letter to constituents who write the Senator on protecting the Merced River that she wants to turn the decision to enlarge New Exchequer Dam over to FERC (which would require ending Wild & Scenic river protection for the affected segment of the Merced River).
April 2012: HR 2578 has still not passed the House. Read FOR and our allies letter to Senator Feinstein asking her not to drown the Wild & Scenic Merced and to not allow the gutting of the National Wild & Scenic River Act. FOR and our allies continue to fight against passage by the full House. We are also working to head-off a potential companion bill from being introduced in the US Senate that would weaken the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act and devastate a protected section of the Wild & Scenic Merced River. Read Senator Feinstein's response to FOR saying that she is not carry legislation to drown the Merced River "at this time."
WASHINGTON, D.C. UPDATE - November 8, 2011: The House Natural Resources Committee passed HR 2578 (Denahm). The full House is expected to pass the measure to roll back wild & scenic river protection for the Merced River. If passed by the Senate and signed by the President, this will be the first time in the history of the national wild & scenic river system that the Congress has repealed wild & scenic river protection in order to inundate a once protected free-flowing river in order to construct a reservoir. This bill replaces Representative Denham's early bill: HR 869. Get the latest update on the bill's movements by visiting the Congressional bill tracking site "Thomas" and entering "HR 2578" in the bill search box.
July 2011: FOR's Ron Stork testified on Tuesday, June 14th before Congress on HR 869. You can read more, get a link to hear his testimony and listen to the full hearing - by clicking here. To read Ron's written testimony click here (pdf).
Friends of the River has been involved in protecting the Merced River since our early days and we with support our members were key partners in securing federal Wild & Scenic status for the stretch above New Exchequer Dam. Now part of the protected Wild & Scenic Merced is being eyed for the needless expansion of a dam that has never even filled and spilled - a waste of a river and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. (see map below)
From its source in the Yosemite high country to the foothills below, the Merced River is one of the few undammed rivers in the Sierra Nevada. In recognition of its rare free flowing character and outstanding values, the Merced was protected as a National Wild & Scenic River. Just downstream of the Merced Wild & Scenic River in the Sierra foothills, the river flows into McClure Reservoir behind the New Exchequer Dam. This is the segment of the Merced that provides water storage, hydro power, and flood control for Californians.
The upper San Joaquin River runs dry in most years due to upstream diversions. So the Merced River is considered the effective headwaters of the San Joaquin River system, as it is the first tributary to contribute noticeable flows to the dewatered upper San Joaquin River. Improving flows and physical habitat in this river should be a significant component of any Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta restoration program, and a key factor controlling the water flow on the Merced River is the amount released from New Exchequer Dam. Friends of the River is working hard on the relicensing to protect, defend, and improve the Merced River system in several key areas:
Wild & Scenic River – Friends of the River is defending the Wild and Scenic River above the New Exchequer Dam. This river segment was protected by Congress in 1992, but is threatened by MID’s proposal to raise the New Exchequer Dam and expand the reservoir, which would invade and flood the upstream wild and scenic corridor.
Fish Passage – Friends of the River is investigating potential opportunities for fish passage above the all four dams to restore salmon and steelhead to their historic habitat in the upper Merced River watershed. State and federal resource agencies have been working with Friends of the River and other interested parties to gather additional information on existing fish passageways and conditions necessary to improve available habitat upstream of the dams.
Merced Water Quality/Flows – Friends of the River is advocating for improved water quality, increased flows, and restoration of physical habitat for anadromous (salmon and steelhead) fisheries downstream of all four dams. The lower Merced is important for the ecologically-significant Central Valley steelhead and fall-run Chinook salmon, and it is imperative to enhance this ecosystem to promote development of all life-stages for the fisheries and related communities.
Delta Water Quality/Flows – The Merced plays an important role in providing flows in the lower San Joaquin River and the beleaguered Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Water from the Merced River increases the volume of flows and improves water quality in the San Joaquin. This translates to more water flowing into the Delta, improving conditions both for anadromous fish migrating to the ocean and for reducing salinity in the Delta system. Government agencies involved in the Merced relicensing project must evaluate impacts beyond the dams themselves, and look for ways to improve the Merced’s contribution to the larger San Joaquin system and the Delta.
For more information concerning Friends of the River’s Merced River Restoration Campaign, contact Ron at (916) 442-3155 x220, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about the FERC relicensing of the New Exchequer/McSwain project, visit http://www.eurekasw.com/MID/default.aspx.