Future of dams could pit farms against fish

The Merced River begins its journey high in the Sierra before rushing down the foothills and crossing the Valley to finally empty into the San Joaquin River. Most of this scenic river's 122-mile-route runs below two of Merced Irrigation District's dams -- the McSwain and New Exchequer. The very life of the river depends on how much water these dams release and when.

That relationship may change. In 2014 the irrigation district's federal license to operate the dams expires. Most expect the license to be reissued -- but environmentalists hope that the new license will change the way the river has been managed. Much of their concern is about the health of the river's fish.

When the license was first issued in 1964 by the Federal Power Authority, now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the licensing process paid little heed to environmental concerns. But since the 1980s, when environmental groups were given a seat at the licensing table, dam operators have had to realign their operations to include ecological concerns.

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