WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday raised caution signals over a Merced Irrigation District proposal to expand Lake McClure.
While stopping short of outright opposition, a top federal land manager warned that the proposal would be an "unprecedented" watering down of the wild-and-scenic protection currently covering the Merced River. The administration urged further study before Congress proceeds with Lake McClure expansion.
"(It) would result in a wild river segment becoming more like a lake than a river," warned Marcilynn Burke, deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management.
But the bill authored by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, enjoys the support of four other San Joaquin Valley lawmakers from both parties, as well as local cities and farm groups, and it could still make its way through the GOP-controlled House.
This means that as with many other California water disputes, from San Joaquin River protection to the future of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Lake McClure legislation's future will likely be determined in the Senate. The bill's supporters have held preliminary discussions with California's two Democratic senators.
The bill would allow the Merced Irrigation District to consider modifying the existing spillway gates at New Exchequer Dam. This would allow the irrigation district to capture up to 70,000 additional acre-feet in Lake McClure during wet years.
"The significance of any new water supply for the Central Valley cannot be overstated," declared Bryan Kelly, director of regulatory compliance and government affairs for the Merced Irrigation District.
Lake McClure can currently hold about 1 million acre-feet of water.
"We need to be able to save and store the excess water in wet years for when the inevitable drought occurs," Denham said.
Kelly stressed that the estimated $40 million project cost would be shouldered by the irrigation district. He also noted that the proposal still would need full evaluation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, as part of the district's 2014 hydroelectric project relicensing.
"A project that can provide tens of thousands of acre-feet of new water to the San Joaquin Valley at no federal cost certainly bears consideration," Kelly said in testimony before the House national parks, forests and public lands subcommittee.
The big political impediment is the wild-and-scenic river status first granted portions of the Merced River in 1987, during the Reagan administration. Currently, 122 miles of the river are included in the National Wild and Scenic River system.
The wild-and-scenic designation limits development and includes protection for a dozen commercial whitewater guide companies, which each year serve about 10,000 customers along the Merced River.
Currently, the irrigation district cannot allow Lake McClure to beyond a point 867 feet above sea level. The bill would allow the lake to expand to 877 feet above sea level for up to two months each year, if federal energy regulators agreed. This would inundate roughly half a mile of protected river.
"Congress did not create the national wild and scenic river system as a national reserve for future reservoirs, but as a system to protect living free-flowing rivers for posterity," testified Ronald Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River.
A dozen other environmental organizations similarly oppose the bill, including Friends of the River and The Wilderness Society.