WASHINGTON — A wild-and-scenic stretch of the Merced River in California would lose some of its savor so that farmers could get more water, as part of a wide-ranging package approved by a House panel Wednesday.
By allowing the man-made Lake McClure to expand, the bill written by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, Calif., would aid growers during dry years. It would also, for the first time ever, allow inundation of a waterway that's protected as a National Wild and Scenic River.
"We should be able to adjust those boundaries if it serves the greater good," Denham said, adding that "the bill is common-sense legislation that would lead to desperately needed water storage."
But critics contend the measure would "do real harm to the Merced Wild and Scenic River," as Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., put it Wednesday, and its long-term prospects in the Senate are unclear.
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The House Natural Resources Committee approved the Merced River bill along with some 20 others that, taken together, largely underscore House Republican sentiments toward public land and water policies.
Another bill approved Wednesday, for instance, would exempt all border control projects including fences and roads from some three dozen environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act.
"The purpose of the bill is to use border security as a cover to remove more than a century's worth of environmental protection," Grijalva charged.
Undeniably, many of the bills send a message. One, written by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, Calif., would block the Western Area Power Administration from using federal stimulus funds for new wind and solar energy projects.
"We're not opposed to any form of energy that can stand on its own merits," McClintock said.
Driving home the political point, McClintock repeatedly invoked the name of Solyndra, the now-notorious California solar energy firm that went bankrupt despite $528 million in federal loan guarantees.
The Western Area Power Administration debate lasted a long time, while the Merced River bill debate lasted only a few minutes.
The latter bill would allow the Merced Irrigation District to potentially modify New Exchequer Dam, by adding gates atop the current emergency spillway. This $40 million project would allow the irrigation district to store an additional 70,000 acre-feet of water.
Currently, an average of 300,000 acre-feet of water annually is provided through New Exchequer Dam.
Even if Denham's bill passes, the final decision on expanding Lake McClure would be up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will be considering a hydroelectric power license application that's up for renewal in 2014.
The legal wrinkle is that expanding Lake McClure would inundate roughly half a mile of a river that's part of the National Wild and Scenic River system. The wild-and-scenic river law specifies that protected rivers "shall be preserved in a free-flowing condition."
Nationwide, portions of more than 200 rivers are covered under the wild-and-scenic river law, first written in 1968. Currently, 122.5 miles of the Merced River are covered, under bills approved by Congress in 1987 and 1992.
"This legislation, in preserving one of the Central Valley's most precious resources, will ensure that this portion of the river is protected and preserved for our future generations," then-Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., said at the time of the 1992 action.
On Wednesday, Denham countered that Congress should be able to undo what it once did.
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