why change now?

Merced, California is located in the dry but productive Central Valley of California.  Besides local groundwater, farmers in the Merced Irrigation District use the water stored in Lake McClure on the Merced River.  Looking to expand their water supplies, the Merced Irrigation District has proposed to raise the spillway as much as 10 feet in the reservoir, so that they can capture more runoff from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in particularly wet seasons.  It’s a relatively simple change from an infrastructure perspective, but there’s one catch: the expanded reservoir, when full, would flood part of the Merced River designated as a “Wild and Scenic” river.

The “wild and scenic” designation comes from a 1968 law to “protect wild rivers and scenic rivers from development that would substantially change their wild or scenic nature.”  Only 156 rivers across the US have wild and scenic status, and the goal is to preserve these rivers’ free-flowing condition.  Sounds like that’s not really compatible with an expansion of Lake McClure.  Nonetheless, the local congressman, Rep. Jeff Denham, has begun the process of removing the “wild and scenic” designation from this section of the Merced River, and the House has already approved the bill that includes this provision.

This is a clear case of the values of our ancestors (those 1960s environmentalist hippies) clashing with the priorities of today.  We’ve decided a certain way to balance ecosystems and free flowing rivers against our water demands, and have been using it for ~44 years, but now we’ve gotten tired of that approach?  Environmentalists are rightly fearful of the legal precedent that this revocation would set.  Why bother with such designations if we will later down the line decide that progress comes first?

It sounds to me like the Merced Irrigation District should consider alternative methods of water storage, at least to compare the relative costs.  For example, storing water underground during wet seasons could be just as viable (I’m pretty sure this part of the Central Valley has the right alluvial sedimentary geology for underground storage) with far fewer environmental costs.  No change to the “wild and scenic” status would be necessary if water management strategies from 2012 were used instead of those from the 1960s…