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House votes to boost Merced River water storage despite ‘wild and scenic’ status

A divided House on Tuesday approved a bill that could increase water storage in California’s Merced River by taking away some long-standing “wild and scenic” river protections.

Backed by farmers and local lawmakers but opposed by environmentalists and the Obama administration, the bill written by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, Calif., passed as part of a larger public lands measure package tailored by conservatives.

“It’s a small step,” Denham said. “We need thousands of jobs in the Central Valley, and we need many more projects like this.”

The bill would allow the Merced Irrigation District to raise New Exchequer Dam spillways, temporarily expanding Lake McClure some years into a part of the river currently protected as free-flowing under federal law.

The House approved the legislation by a 232 to 188 margin and shipped it to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future. Although Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have not endorsed the Merced River language, neither has publicly opposed it. Behind the scenes, both senators and their staffs are reviewing the idea.

“I support increasing water supply in Lake McClure,” Feinstein said Tuesday, “but more research needs to be done of the proposal’s environmental effects.”

The broader package approved by the House includes a public lands potpourri, including renewal of a Northern California timber harvest plan initially co-authored by Feinstein. More controversially, the package includes a scheme to exempt immigrant control projects along the Mexican and Canadian borders from some 39 different environmental laws including the Endangered Species Act.

Denham’s legislation is designed to help the Merced Irrigation District plan the future of New Exchequer Dam and Lake McClure. By raising two spillway gates 10 feet, the irrigation district would increase potential storage by up to 70,000 acre-feet and boost hydroelectric power production by up to 10,000 megawatts.

Currently, the irrigation district cannot allow Lake McClure to expand beyond a point 867 feet above sea level. The bill would allow the lake to reach 877 feet above sea level.

In doing so, the district would temporarily inundate about half-a-mile of the river that’s currently protected under the federal wild-and-scenic law. The inundation would occur during wetter-than-normal years, for up to 60 days.

“We should be able to adjust these boundaries, especially if it improves the greater good,” Denham said.

It’s a local concern, but it sets a national precedent. As described by opponents, the legislation marks the first time Congress would allow the inundation of a river segment protected under the wild-and-scenic program.

“Never before has Congress reversed course and eliminated federal protection to allow this kind of harm to a previously protected river,” Friends of the River and other conservation groups wrote this week, adding that “our wild and scenic rivers are as important as our national parks and equally deserving of truly permanent protection.”

The temporary inundation could harm habitat for the limestone salamander and the elderberry longhorn beetle, two creatures protected under state or federal laws, federal officials say. Remains of the old Yosemite Valley Railroad and historic gold-mining sites would be “degraded,” the Bureau of Land Management warned at a congressional hearing.

Nationwide, portions of more than 200 rivers are covered under the wild-and-scenic river law, first written in 1968. Designated rivers are managed in their free-flowing state, though the protections are not as strict as given federal wilderness. Currently, a little more than 122 miles of the Merced River from Yosemite National Park to Lake McClure are covered under bills approved by Congress in 1987 and 1992.

“The unique beauty of the Merced makes it a prime choice for inclusion in the wild-and-scenic river system,” then-Rep. Gary Condit, D-Ceres, Calif., said in 1992.

If Congress approves shrinking the Merced River’s wild-and-scenic protections, and Obama doesn’t stand in the way, the Merced Irrigation District will still need Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approvals as part of the New Exchequer relicensing.

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