California has hundreds of irrigation districts and more than 1400 dams, which divide, divert and route water all over the state, but one district in particular is garnering national attention.
The Merced Irrigation District (MID) is in a relatively small town of 80,000 people, but it manages the famous Merced River, which runs through Yosemite Valley and is formed from its world-renowned waterfalls. The river has long been protected by federal Wild and Scenic status, which means it can’t be encroached on by a dam, as Yosemite’s Tuolumne River was long ago. But that status is now threatened due to bill H.R. 2578, a measure that among other things would amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to make way for a spillway project. The project would flood 1700 linear feet of the wild river, a small section, but in doing so could rollback protections on all Wild and Scenic Rivers.
This could set a dangerous precedent. First, it might be 1700 feet, then it might be 17 miles, and then Yosemite’s El Capitan and Half Dome might be accessible only by power boat. And there is the vulnerability of the rest of America’s rivers to consider.
And the project doesn’t make sense.
MID’s New Exchequer Dam has a capacity of a million acre-feet, which is more than the annual average flow of the Merced River. The project would add 70,000 acre-feet of storage, but in critical dry years, it would yield only 15,000 acre-feet. By California standards, that’s not enough water for one-thousandth of one percent of the state’s population. And it’s expensive. The stated capital cost is $40 million, not including operation and maintenance costs, or debt servicing, which can double the price.
So why make such a costly proposal?
The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, has publicly stated in a McClatchy News Service story, “It’s a small step. We need thousands of jobs in the Central Valley, and we need many more projects like this.”
The claim is that more water storage will bring jobs, help farmers and provide a reliable supply. But California’s 1400 dams have rarely fulfilled that promise. Instead, in the last 20 years, Merced County’s unemployment was, at its best, 10 percent, and, at its worst, 20 percent. Today, the rate hovers around 17 percent, and it’s not for lack of water. In the drought years of 2007, 2008 and 2009, California agriculture generated the highest revenues on record, and agricultural work increased by 2 percent, while construction work decreased by 44 percent and trade work by 46 percent. Drops in employment were related to the recession and the housing crisis, not the drought.
There is little correlation between increased water supplies and a better living for most Central Valley residents, as poverty rates remain high in both wet and dry years.
So again, why is MID advocating another dam project? The simplest answer is to manage more water to serve its customers. “My goal is to store water in a wet year and use it in a dry year,” said MID General Manager John Sweigard. One of his primary concerns is replenishing the underground aquifer, which is being depleted.
That’s a valid concern, but it overlooks the major problems caused by surface water storage. It’s well documented that dams are destructive to the natural environment. The Central Valley once had natural wetlands, rivers and seasonal lakes. The Merced River was part of an ecosystem that connected the Sierra Nevada to the sea and brought life to the valley, in all forms, for all species. In the last century, 95 percent of Central Valley wetlands have been lost. Once plentiful salmon are heading towards extinction, and the area is now home to 91 threatened and endangered species. And dams and diversions are a major contributor to the deterioration of California’s Bay-Delta ecosystem, where more than 750 species live. Thirty-three delta species are endangered, and likely to go extinct within the next 25 to 50 years, if not sooner. Scientists have clearly established the need to increase in-stream flows to resuscitate the system.
And how is California going to do that? It will have to reduce use, and the cheapest, most cost effective way to do that is via conservation, improved efficiency and better water management.
An enormous amount of water is lost in its delivery. Many water districts lose about 40 percent of their water just sending it down leaking canals or decaying irrigation ditches.
According to MID’s annual report, in 2010, MID delivered 277,789 acre feet of irrigation water to approximately 1,900 fields farmed by 1,400 customers. An operational loss of 40 percent is about 100,000 acre-feet—which is significantly more water than can be provided by new surface water storage.
That said, much of that water goes into replenishing the aquifer, which is used by farmers in dry and wet years. But the aquifer continues to get depleted despite MID’s recharge efforts, which sets up a never ending cycle of overuse, followed by increased surface water demand.
Meanwhile, MID is not compensated financially for replenishing its aquifer, which forces it to sell water out of district to compensate for losses. This March, MID voted to transfer 15,000 acre-feet of water to the San Luis Water District (SLWD) at $176 per acre-foot. Notably, that’s the average amount of water that will become available from the dam spillway project in critical dry years. The in-district cost of water is $18.25 per acre-foot.
Water management problems can be solved, but not with the build-now, plan-later approach. Charging for ground water use would be a start. And there are many more ways to become efficient, as demonstrated by existing technologies already in use. But instead, the issue has escalated to the political realm and is tied to a bill passed by the House, where fair dialogue and subtle detail gets drowned out by loud rhetoric. The devil isn’t in the details. It’s in ideology of winners and losers, and we’re all going to lose if we continue down that route.
MID is asking Congress and the people of the United States to rollback protections on all Wild and Scenic Rivers, by allowing a spillway project to encroach on the Merced River for a relatively small amount of water. This direction has never led to enough supply, only more consumption and demand.
Since the creation of the act in 1968, no protections have been removed from any of these rivers, and less than one-quarter of one percent of America’s rivers are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, while more than 75,000 large dams have encroached on 600,000 miles of American rivers.
“The designation is a promise to the American people. We will protect this river from new dams and diversions, not just today, but for generations to come,” said Katherine Evatt, a 23-year-river-activist working to protect the Mokelumne River, north of Yosemite. “The most recent Mokelumne dam proposal was the sixth in the last 30 years,” she said. “We have to constantly fight them off, when we’d rather concentrate on restoring the river and getting the salmon and steelhead back. We need a way to secure permanent protection, and the wild and scenic designation is the only way.”
There are many ways to solve our water management problems, but encroaching on America’s last wild rivers isn’t one of them.