A proposal to dangerously enlarge a dam and roll back Wild & Scenic protection.
The Merced National Wild & Scenic River
The Merced National Wild & Scenic River flows from glaciers at the crest of the Sierra, through Yosemite National Park and Yosemite Valley, and into the Sierra foothills. 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.
The lower segment protected in 1992 includes public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management from the small community of Briceburg on Highway 140 to the upper limit of McClure Reservoir. This segment is home to the rare limestone salamander (found nowhere else on earth outside of the shaded slopes of the Merced River canyon) and provides outstanding opportunities for whitewater recreation, hiking, bike and horseback riding, and camping. Part of this Wild segment flows through the Merced River Wilderness Study Area.
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 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.
The Threat – New Exchequer Dam Raise
The Merced Irrigation District (Merced ID) is re-licensing the New Exchequer Dam for the first time in 50 years. Early re-licensing 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 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 re-license dams so long as Merced ID 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 re-licensing effort.
Two California Congressmen, Jeff Denham and Tom McClintock have taken up the effort to un-designate the Merced National Wild & Scenic River in past sessions of congress and may be attempting to get this language into must pass bills before congress and the president in this next year.
What the Un-Designation Precedent Could Mean for Other Wild & 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 and McClintock succeed in breaking the “permanent” in “permanent protection,” his ideas could be coming soon to a river near you.
How You Can Help
Merced National Wild & Scenic River
FOR is actively working to oppose this threat to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act and the Merced National Wild & Scenic River. We are coordinating a wide-ranging group of citizens and organizations to oppose the raising of New Exchequer Dam and building grassroots support for protecting the Merced National Wild & Scenic River and its magnificent world-class wild lands.
FOR Video on The Expanded Dam-Reservoir Proposal (Summer 2015)