River In California 'Wild And Scenic' No More?

For the first time ever, Congress may remove the "Wild and Scenic" status from a stretch of river designated as such under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act—in order to do exactly what the act protects against.

House Resolution 934, proposed by California Republican Tom McClintock, would remove about 1,800 feet from the Merced River's 122.5 protected miles in central California in order to raise the New Exchequer Dam by ten feet, a project that would flood this canyon-lined segment in wet years.

We wrote about both Rep. McClintock and the Merced River last week when we reported on a plan to overhaul a section of Yosemite National Park through which the river runs. McClintock released a statement opposing the plan, which would remove many riverside amenities in the Yosemite Valley, on the grounds that it violates the spirit of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act:

Congress enacted the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to protect free-flowing rivers from dams and other development. Congress did not intend for NPS to use the Act to justify limiting visitation, closing facilities and eliminating or curtailing historic uses that pre-date passage of the Act and the Merced River designation under the Act.

However, it seems that the spirit of the act is less important to Rep. McClintock when the issue under review is increasing the capacity of Lake McClure, which stores the Merced's waters for use by the Merced Irrigation District (MID).

From his statement accompanying the introduction of H.R. 934:

"The benefits of a minor adjustment to the boundary [of the Merced Wild and Scenic River] rescue this desperately needed resource [i.e. water] from truly outrageous bureaucratic red tape."

Just to clarify Rep. McClintock's stated positions: the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is both an instrument for protecting Yosemite's swimming pools, and "truly outrageous bureaucratic red tape."

The MID, which pushed for the bill, argues that by raising the lake's spillways ten feet, it can capture desperately needed rainfall in wet years to be used in times of drought—like now.

"Three years ago, during a wet year, MID released 1 million acre feet of spring runoff to the Pacific Ocean," said MID General Manager John Sweigard in a statement in support of the bill. "If this project were in place, we would have stored enough water to supply 25,000 acres this year. Instead, we must rely on dwindling groundwater reserve."

Opponents of the bill argue that the relatively small increase in storage capacity is not enough to offset the damage done to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In a letter signed by representatives of over 50 advocacy groups and presented to the House Natural Resources Committee last week, the signatories argue that "Removing federal protection from a portion of the Merced directly contradicts the purpose of the Act and sets a dangerous and unacceptable precedent for other protected rivers throughout the nation."

According to the U.S. Forest Service, 11,000 miles are protected by the WSRA, or just over a quarter of a percent of the nation's river miles.