Feinstein, Boxer stymie water, power & wildlife for Lake McClure

McClure LakeMay 4, 2013

By Wayne Lusvardi

New York Times journalist Peter Passell once wrote: “California’s water system might have been invented by a Soviet bureaucrat on an LSD trip.” And as the 1960s hippies would have put it, the trip would have been a bummer.

San Joaquin Valley farmers must feel they are on such a surreal drug trip.  The Merced Irrigation District has been attempting for some time to raise the spillways on the New Exchequer Dam that creates the artificial lake of Lake McClure in Mariposa County. The lake is located between Modesto on the West and Yosemite National Park on the East. It stores water for 2,200 farmers and generates 100 megawatts of hydroelectric power.  There are 82-miles of shoreline around the winding lake.

Spillway raising doesn’t raise dam

The Merced Irrigation District wants to disturb less than one-half mile of shoreline to raise the McClure Lake spillway up to one foot.  This would allow up to 70,000-acre feet of additional water to be captured once every three years during wet years.  As shown on the photo above, the spillways are not located on or next to the dam, but next to the boat marina and recreation area.

The project would cost about $40 million.  That equates to a very cheap $57 per acre-foot of water over the expected 30-year life of the bonds to finance the project.  Typical agricultural revenues in this area range from $320 to $1,500 per-acre, depending on the type of crop and market. The project would pay for itself through increased agricultural production with no subsidies required.

An acre-foot of water is roughly sufficient to irrigate one-third acre of farmland.  So about 23,333 acres — or about 36 square miles — of additional farmland could be irrigated every three years.

Green benefits would vastly exceed tiny impacts

Expanding the capacity and footprint of the lake would have many potential environmental benefits. Coho salmon are only self-sustaining in Lake McClure, not in the Merced River.  The rare sub-species of the “Limestone Salamander” that has from 9 to 15 colonies around the lake only are found on the north-and-east rocky limestone outcrops and talus slopes of the lake. They are not found where the spillway is located. And the salamander habitat is 5 to 10 miles distant from where the spillway is located. The federally-and-state-listed Bald Eagle concentrates around Lake McClure rather than the Merced River. The rare Shaggyhair Lupine plant — a reported Federal Candidate 2 Species — occurs around Lake McClure.

Thus, critical environmental resources are sustained by the artificial lake with very minor negative impacts due to the proposed project.  Raising the spillway would only impact already disturbed lands.  The spillway is adjacent to the boat ramp and houseboat repair yard of the McClure Point Recreation Area and Marina.

On top of being economically and environmentally sustaining, there is bipartisan political support for the project by Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove).

So raising the spillway would hypothetically be a four-way winning deal for farmers, recreational users of the lake, politicians and the environment.  It sounds like a “no brainer” to approve such a project.

Who put anti-project LSD in the drinking water? 

But the project is opposed by California Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.  The spillway-raising project was part of H.R. 1837, the San Joaquin River Water Reliability Act, that died in the U.S. Senate partially due to non-support by Feinstein and Boxer. Also, 52 environmental organizations who oppose the project.  Among them are Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the California Wilderness Coalition.

Now, Congressmen Costa and McClintock have reintroduced the proposed project as H.R 934 – Amendment to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

This has resulted in a lot of hysteria and factual hallucinations by environmental groups.

Disinformation spread by environmental organizations

Some of the disinformation spread about the McClure Spillway-Raising Project include:

* The project proposes to raise the dam 10-feet thus flooding the abutments and tower foundations for the adjacent bridge.  Fact: It is the spillway — not the dam -– that would be raised.

* It would set a dangerous precedent of being the very first roll back of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  Fact: The 1987 boundary of the dam inundation area preceded the overlapping boundary line of the Wild and Scenic Rivers designation of the lake that was extended in 1992.

* It would inundate the habitat of the Limestone Salamander, a California endangered species.  In fact, the salamander habitat is 10-miles away from the spillway project. Raising the water level of the lake 10 feet from 867 to 877 feet above sea level for two months each year would only affect a half-mile of shoreline.

* The “dam raising” is motivated by “manic ‘gread’ (sic) for more water, more power, more ‘moeny’ (sic) that motivates the managers of irrigation and water districts.”   Fact: The project is economically self-sustaining and does not enrich water managers or their pensions benefit programs.

* The project is another “porkbarrel boondoggle” that will “produce electricity that will go to the high speed rail” – “the grandmother of all pork barrels.”  Fact check: the project would be paid for by local farmers from the crop production it would generate.  The McClure Lake dam produces 100 megawatts of power.  The spillway-raising project would boost hydropower output to 10,000 megawatts.  The hydropower produced mainly is for water well pumping by the members of the Merced Irrigation District. There is a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) for PG&E to buy the hydropower produced by the dam’s hydroelectric turbines.   But the California Bullet Train would require 3 billion megawatts of power.

* Marcilynn Burke, Deputy Director of the Bureau of Land Management, testified to the Obama Administration that: “it (the project) would result in a wild river segment becoming more like a lake than a river.”  Fact: the spillway-raising project is located at the non-flowing lake and not on the Merced River.

Not only have environmental activists apparently engaged in a power trip to block more water, more hydropower, and more wildlife habitat for Lake McClure.  They have been joined by high-level Federal officials including U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

Recently, Sen. Boxer has broken ranks with environmental organizations.  She is now supporting legislation to impose deadlines for environmental reviews of water projects -– especially flood control projects –- in order to end unnecessary delays to projects.  As powerful head of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, would Boxer finally support the Lake McClure Boundary Adjustment Project, which is a win for both farmers and the environment?

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