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March 29, 2013: Vol. 3, #3

The Voice of California's Rivers Since 1973
Ron Stork on the River
NF American River Hydro Project
US Senate moves to protect river-side trees

Take Action
Comment on the State's Water Quality Control Plan (Merced, Tuolumne, & Stanislaus Rivers)
In-Depth: FOR's case to Congress to retain Wild Merced's national protections
River in the Spotlight: The Black Butte River
By Your River: The Limestone Salamander
[object Object]TAKE ACTION TODAY: Submit comments on the State Water Resources Control Board’s Water Quality Control Plan Update.
Katy Cotter, Legal Counsel

Friends of the River encourages its supporters to tell the State Water Resources Control Board that recovering salmon populations need adequate flows from the Merced, Tuolumne, and Stanislaus Rivers. The Board is currently considering amendments to the 2006 Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan objectives that pertain to the Lower San Joaquin River (Phase I of the Plan update), and has released a Substitute Environmental Document  (SED) reviewing the environmental impacts of its proposed objectives.  The Board has currently recommended a standard of 35% of unimpaired flows from the Merced, Tuolumne, and Stanislaus Rivers, which are east-side tributaries to the Lower San Joaquin River. This flow requirement loosely resembles the current, woefully inadequate flows that are hastening the extinction of migratory fish populations.  The Board’s 35% flow recommendation also contradicts its 2010 flow criteria report, in which it concluded that the 60% of unimpaired flow from the Lower San Joaquin River would be necessary to restore fish populations. Friends of the River will submit comments urging the Board to consider a stronger standard for fish and we encourage you do to so as well. The Board will next take up the issue of flows on the Sacramento River, so stay tuned! More information on Phase I of the Plan update can be found by clicking here.

The deadline for submitting comments on the SED is Friday, March 29, 2013 at noon. You can email comments to Jeanine Townsend at,  or deliver them by hand to the State Water Resources Control Board, Cal/EPA Headquarters, 1001 “I” Street, 24th Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814

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Ron On The River
Ron Stork, Policy Director

In spite of Representative McClintock’s intentions to revive Auburn dam, folks at Friends of the River hope that the arc of history is one of river restoration rather than one of damming the last free-flowing reaches of our nation’s rivers.  So it was with some pleasure that I spent last Saturday rafting the formerly closed Auburn dam reach of the American River with our good friends from PARC (Protect American River Canyons).

In addition to some nice whitewater and peaceful stretches of river, one rafts through some interesting monuments to failed dams: the wreckage of the Highway 49 Bridge washed out almost 50 years ago when Hell Hole Dam collapsed (set against the “No Hands” Bridge that survived the deluge), large landslides caused by the sudden drawdown of the reservoir behind the Auburn dam cofferdam when it failed back in 1986, and the huge scars of the foundation work for the Auburn dam itself. It’s enough to give a dam builder the shivers.

But on that Saturday it was nothing but happy faces as we rode the whitewater around the old Auburn dam cofferdam, now being colonized by native Coyote brush.  Nature bats last.

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[object Object]North Fork American Dam to be studied for hydroelectric plant – again
Ron Stork, Policy Director

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued its second preliminary permit for a small hydroelectric project at Lake Clementine Reservoir and Dam on the North Fork American River. The permit gives California hydroelectric project proponents the inside track in case of a competing license application for a project at this Corps of Engineers debris dam.

The North Fork American Dam was constructed to allow the resumption of hydraulic gold mining in the watershed above, although the later construction of Folsom Dam and the unpopularity of tearing away whole mountainsides of public lands made it unnecessary.

The potential hydroelectric project, along with the Lake Clementine itself, would be drowned by the Auburn dam and reservoir now being re-championed by the Congressman who, in part, represents the area (Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove).

Maybe this means you can have one dam, but you can’t have two.


American River Levee 2Senate Environment & Public Works Committee moves to protect river-side trees
Ron Stork, Policy Director

Senator Barbara Boxer's Environment Committee adopted its version of the biennial Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) last week.

The Committee's WRDA contained direction for the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to take a fresh look at its policy requiring an extensive annual tall-grass and woody-vegetation-free zone on or near (or even hundreds of feet away from) Corps-regulated levees.  It also orders the Corps to stop implementing its policy until the review is completed. The provision is supported by the state of California, which has opposed the Corps policy on environmental, levee-stability, and financial grounds. Friends of the River, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife have brought suits against the Corps of Engineers' policy.

The WRDA included provisions for regulatory "streamlining" of review of Corps projects by resources agencies that drew opposition from environmental groups and a veto threat from the Obama administration but a vigorous defense from Senator Boxer.

Congress has not been able to pass WRDAs in recent years because of differences between the House and Senate and still faces an uncertain future.

Black Butte RiverRiver in the spotlight: The Black Butte River
The Black Butte River flows for more than 20 miles from its source in the northern Coast Range to its confluence with the Middle Eel River. The river and its tributary, Cold Creek, provide some of the best spawning habitat for the Middle Eel’s declining chinook salmon and winter steelhead. The streams also support healthy populations of wild rainbow trout. Indeed, the trout found in Cold Creek possess a distinct color pattern esembling the rare red-banded trout.
The old growth forests growing along the Black Butte River and Cold Creek provide excellent habitat for the threatened northern spotted owl and the sensitive goshawk and pine martin. Dramatic rock outcrops dominate portions of  both streams. The upper portion of the Black Butte River flows through a  volcanic rock formation, creating a unique series of pools and falls. Much of  the river canyon is prone to landslides and slumps and is quite sensitive to new road construction.
A Native American tribe known as the Huitintno’m Yuki lived along the Black Butte River during the winter and migrated upstream in the spring in pursuit of salmon and other game. Their estimated 4,000-year tenure in the wild river canyon came to an abrupt end when European colonists slaughtered the entire tribe in the 1800’s. The concentration of cultural values and significant archeological resources left by the tribe is exceptional in the northern Coast Range region. These values are threatened by disturbance and theft  associated with increased motorized access.
Fortunately, vehicular access to the Black Butte River and Cold Creek is limited to a few remote and rugged jeep trails. An opportunity for hikers is the Cold Creek trail, which drops down to the creek from the Plaskett Recreation Area. Most of the river flows through publicly owned National Forest lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service as part of the Mendocino National Forest.
In 2006, 23 miles of the Black Butte River and five miles of Cold Creek were added to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System.

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merced 3-28In-Depth: FOR's case to Congress to retain Wild Merced's national protections
Steve Evans, Wild & Scenic Rivers Project Coordinator
"The Merced Irrigation District doesn’t need legislation removing federal protection from the Wild Merced River to study what will ultimately prove to be a costly, unsafe, and infeasible expansion of McClure Reservoir."
In February 2013, Representative Tom McClintock of California introduced H.R. 934, a bill to remove from federal protection a short segment of the Wild Merced River to allow for possible expansion of McClure Reservoir by the Merced Irrigation District (MID). The proposed reservoir expansion would drown a segment of the Wild Merced, a river that provides outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreation and important fish and wildlife habitat in the Mother Lode region of California.
More than 20 years ago, Congress preserved the Merced as a National Wild & Scenic River. Last year, the House of Representatives approved a bill nearly identical to H.R. 934 that Friends of the River and our partners fought hard against and the bill died in the Senate. With the introduction of H.R. 934, Congress has once again been asked to consider precedent-setting legislation that directly threatens one of California’s wildest rivers.
There are many reasons why Congress should reject H.R. 934. These include:
  • Terrible Precedent. If passed by Congress, H.R. 934 would be the first time that our existing policy of preserving some free flowing and outstanding rivers is reversed to allow for destructive water development. California already has 1,400 major dams. One congressional proponent of the dam raise said, “We need many more projects like this.” Rep. McClintock characterized the federal river protection law as “truly outrageous bureaucratic red tape.” Clearly, H.R. 934 is not only a dangerous precedent for the Wild Merced, but for many other supposedly protected rivers in California and throughout the nation.
  • Breaking the Deal. MID supported protecting the Wild Merced when Congress added the river to the Wild & Scenic Rivers System in 1992. Now MID wants to roll back federal protection to allow for an entirely speculative expansion of McClure Reservoir, despite serious questions about economic and engineering feasibility. MID could design and study the potential reservoir expansion without reversing federal protection for the Wild Merced, but has declined to do so.
  • Impacts on Recreation. The Wild Merced is the gateway to Yosemite National Park. It flows through federal public lands that provide outstanding outdoor recreational opportunities for thousands of people. The Wild Merced is a popular whitewater boating destination and the Merced River Trail provides easy access for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians to one of the most scenic river canyons in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Reservoir expansion would harm these river-based recreational values and adversely impact the local tourism-based economy.
  • Impacts on Wildlife. The Wild Merced provides important habitat for the rare limestone salamander, a critter found nowhere else in the world. The salamander is a state-listed threatened species protected by state law. Expanding the reservoir would not only flood part of the salamander’s habitat, it would directly violate state law.
  • Public Lands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the public lands along the Wild Merced as part of the National Landscape Conservation System. The BLM is responsible for protecting the free flowing character and outstanding values of the Wild Merced. The river also flows through the Merced River Wilderness Study Area, which is managed by the BLM to protect its primitive values. In addition, the agency protects limestone salamander habitat along the river as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. The BLM has raised serious concerns about the legislation because the expanded reservoir would flood the Wild Merced, as well as portions of the Wilderness Study Area and Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
  • Dam Safety. MID proposes to expand McClure Reservoir by raising the spillways of New Exchequer Dam ten feet. This means that the expanded reservoir, when full, would be only one foot below the crest of the dam, creating a dangerous potential for catastrophic failure of the dam 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.
  • Water Yield. Reservoirs have already flooded thirty-two miles of the Merced River. Expanding McClure Reservoir would not produce much new water. Raising the dam would only increase MID’s annual water supply by about 2.5%. Less costly water conservation and reclamation measures would produce more water than raising the dam, without harming the Wild Merced. 
  • Cost. Since no feasibility or engineering studies have been conducted by MID, the public has no idea how much the proposed reservoir expansion could cost. But we do know that expanding McClure Reservoir will require raising or relocating the Highway 49 Bridge. And raising the dam itself will have be done in a way that passes dam safety regulations. Both will likely prove to be prohibitively expensive. Undoubtedly, expanding McClure Reservoir will cost millions of dollars, with MID ratepayers and perhaps state and federal taxpayers footing the bill.
For more information concerning this issue and current updates about H.R. 934 visit

limesal 1 3-28By Your River - The Merced River Limestone Salamander: Found Nowhere Else On Earth.
By Steve Evans

The Merced River limestone salamander (Hydromantes brunus) is one of California’s rarest amphibians. It is a small stocky salamander with red toes and a flattened head and body. Adults measure about 2-3 inches long and are a brownish color. Juveniles are yellowish green, darkening with age.

The Merced River limestone salamander is a lungless salamander that breaths through its skin, which requires them to live in damp environments on land and to move about on the ground only during times of high humidity. In California, they do not inhabit streams or bodies of water, but they are capable of surviving for some time if they fall into water.

Merced River limestone salamanders lay eggs in moist places on land. They young hatch from the egg directly into a tiny terrestrial salamander with the same body form as an adult. Unlike other types of salamanders, they do not hatch in water nor breath through gills.

Little is known about the Merced River limestone salamander. It is most active during in fall, winter, and spring when temperatures are exceedingly low. It is inactive during extreme winter weather and the hot, dry periods of late spring, summer, and early fall. They might also be active in the summer well below the surface where there is sufficient moisture. Some salamanders have been discovered in abandoned mine shafts.

The Merced River limestone salamander uses it tail and webbed feet to assist in climbing. When threatened, this salamander has been observed to coil and roll downhill to escape. Its diet probably consists of a variety of invertebrates. Little is known about its breeding habits. Reproduction is terrestrial and eggs are most likely laid in deep moist rock crevices and talus in late spring, hatching in the summer fully formed. The young remain underground until at the least the fall rains.

The Merced River limestone salamander is endemic to California, which means it is found nowhere else on earth. The salamander inhabits mossy crevices in north and east facing slopes of rock outcrops and steep talus slopes in the grey pine, oak, and chaparral belt of the lower Merced River Canyon. The salamander’s 15 known populations are located along the lower Merced River upstream and upslope of McClure Reservoir, as well as along a few tributaries of the river.

The salamander is a state-listed threatened species due to its limited range and habitat. It is also a fully protected species under the California Fish and Game Code. Unlike species listed under the Endangered Species Act, fully protected species may not be “taken” (that is to say, killed) nor licenses or permits issued for their “take” except for scientific research.

Discovered in 1952, the Merced River limestone salamander has always been considered distinct and one of only three species of Hydromantes in the United States (all of which are endemic to California). The only other members of the genus Hydromantes are found in Italy and southern France. The fact that Hydromantes is found only in California and Europe remains an amazing bio-geographical mystery.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) protects nine known populations of limestone salamanders on public lands in a 1,600-acre Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). Portions of the multi-unit ACEC are located on the north bank of McClure Reservoir and the lower Merced River, and along the Merced’s tributaries, including the North Fork, Sherlock Creek, and Indian Gulch. One of the largest units of the Limestone Salamander ACEC is along the Merced Wild & Scenic River. Much of the ACEC is also located in the BLM’s Merced River Wilderness Study Area.

The proposal to raise New Exchequer Dam and expand McClure Reservoir would flood the portion of the ACEC directly adjacent to the reservoir. Periodic flooding by the reservoir would kill the salamander’s eggs and young in their rocky crevices and talus habitat. This flooding would “take” (kill) a fully protected species and violate state law.

Friends of the River thanks and acknowledges and the Bureau of Land Management for providing most of the information in this article.



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Call 1-877-227-7487 extension 2811
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