This week's storm is doing little to change the big water picture, which is dismal. Once again, there's too little snow in the Sierra and that translates to not enough water for urban and farm uses.
Dry years such as this one make it all the more important that California creates more water storage. That's why we have no reservation in continuing to support the Merced Irrigation District's proposal to study expanding storage capacity at Lake McClure.
The district wants to raise the height of existing New Exchequer spillway gates and raise the elevation of the ungated spillway by 10 feet. That would allow the district to save an additional 70,000 acre-feet during the wet years.
The district needs congressional approval because the higher water level would, in the years that it occurs, inundate a small segment of the 122-mile stretch of the Merced River that is designated as wild and scenic. The district indicates that about 1,800 feet, less than half a mile, would be affected.
A bill that would have allowed this was introduced in 2011 by Rep. Jeff Denham and passed the House of Representatives in 2012. But the bill was never approved by the Senate, so the irrigation district has to start over.
This year's legislation is being carried by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who now represents Merced County, and Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, whose vast district includes Mariposa County, in which the reservoir is located. District leaders hope that having bipartisan sponsorship will help get House Resolution 934 approved.
But environmental groups are opposing the higher spillway because they don't want any disruption to the river's wild and scenic status. They argue that any modification on the Merced will open the door to major changes to Wild and Scenic Rivers protections across the country.
That's hyperbole or, at best, premature speculation. Passage of this bill would not automatically result in raising the reservoir. Rather, it would allow the irrigation district to study this proposal as part of the process of relicensing its hydropower facilities at New Exchequer Dam. A thorough environmental review would be required before the project could proceed and inevitably the district would have to provide mitigation measures to offset disruption to recreation or wildlife.
In the big scope of California's water needs, this is a relatively small project. It would benefit and the $40 million cost be borne by the property owners and customers of the Merced Irrigation District. Potentially, it could boost power production at Exchequer by as much as 10,000 megawatt-hours, enough to serve about 1,700 homes.
It's almost impossible to build dams and reservoirs in California because of the regulations, the environmental challenges and the costs. It makes more sense to look at ways to make the best use of some of the existing facilities.
The Merced Irrigation District should have a chance to study expansion of Lake McClure to take advantage of the wet years, when we have them. We urge Congress to approve HR 934.
ABOUT LAKE McCLURE
Storage capacity 1,024,600 acre-feet
Proposed expansion 70,000 acre-feet
Stores water for 2,200 farmers
Produces 100 megawatts of electricity through generator at New Exchequer Dam
First dam completed 1926
New dam completed 1967
For more information www.mercedid.org.