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Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the Merced River threatened by Merced Irrigation

Posted: 03/20/2011
by Dave Steindorf

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Legislation has been proposed to change the boundary of the Merced Wild and Scenic River in order to accommodate raising the New Exchequer dam and the level of Lake McClure in California. The Wild and Scenic Merced River, located in the central Sierra Nevadas, is feeling the pressure to increase the water supply for irrigation for the San Joaquin Valley.  The Merced Irrigation District seeks to increase the carrying capacity of Lake McClure behind New Exchequer Dam, which will push reservoir levels into the Wild and Scenic reach of the river.

Congressman Jeff Denham has introduced HR869, which proposes to change the boundary of the Wild and Scenic portion of the Merced River to allow the Merced Irrigation District to elevate Lake McClure’s normal pool and flood control storage elevation from 867 feet to 877 feet.  The bill is cosponsored by Congressmen Devin Nunes, Jim Costa, Kevin McCarthy and Dennis Cardoza.  The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed in 1968 to protect the free-flowing character and outstandingly remarkable values of our nation’s rivers.  If passed, this bill would be the first time in history that Congress has reversed course to allow a reservoir to flood a stretch of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

The Merced River, which begins in Yosemite National Park and flows through the San Joaquin Valley, was designated as a Wild and Scenic River in 1987.  The river’s stunning scenery was not untouched by dams when it was designated.  Lake McClure was created by the New Exchequre Dam in 1967.  The rockfill dam is owned by the Merced Irrigation District and provides water to irrigate 130,000 acres of farmland.  Lake McClure currently has a capacity of 1,024,000 acre-feet. Using standard “rules of thumb” for storage to yield ratios, the District’s hoped-for expansion of New Exchequer Dam might increase water supplies by approximately 2% — a small gain that would come at great price to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System.

Ironically, the debate over how to manage the precious resources within our National Parks began with the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite in 1913.  The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act further serves to protect free-flowing rivers within the Park system and beyond, and changing the boundary of a Wild and Scenic river would unravel the protections we have worked so hard to secure. 

We encourage you to let your Senators and Representatives know you oppose HR869!  To take action, visit the Friends of the River site: Save the Merced & the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act 

For more on the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, visit AW's stewardship site:  American Whitewater and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

To learn more about the Merced River, visit the Rivers.gov page about the Merced River

Dave Steindorf
4 Baroni Drive
Chico, CA 95928
Phone: 530-343-1871


Associated Projects

Merced Wild and Scenic River
American Whitewater's advocacy to maintain the boundary of the Merced Wild and Scenic Merced River.