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Tunnel Vision Part Two: Rivers in Peril

How Jerry Brown's plan to build two giant water tunnels, along with legislation in Congress, could ultimately spoil the last of Northern California's wild and scenic rivers.

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Since then, Congress has designated more than two hundred rivers nationwide as wild and scenic. However, it took more than a decade of letter-writing and hard work by environmental groups before California's major North Coast rivers — including the Eel, Smith, and Trinity — received protection under the Wild and Scenic Act in 1981.

And of those three, only the Smith is truly wild. It's the last major undammed river in the state. It begins in the mountains that straddle the California-Oregon border and wends through a spectacular canyon of old-growth redwoods in Del Norte County on its way to the Pacific Ocean near Crescent City. Congress also protected all of the Smith's tributaries. "People worked for years to get the Smith River designated as wild and scenic," noted Don Gillespie of Friends of Del Norte, a grassroots environmental group.

As for the Eel and Trinity, state and local water agencies erected some dams on them before they received wild and scenic protection (although the water diverted from the Eel River system is not shipped south). The Eel snakes through Humboldt County's towering redwoods, along Highway 101, on its way to the ocean near Eureka. And the Trinity begins in the snow-capped peaks near Mount Shasta before its meandering trek to the Pacific.

Hundreds of miles away, the Merced River received its wild and scenic designation in two stages — in 1987 and 1992 — for different portions of the river. The 1992 designation, signed by then-President George H.W. Bush, protected the lower section of the river, west of Yosemite National Park. Inside the park, the river is completely unspoiled, but outside of it, the Merced was dammed several times, and the 1992 designation protected sections of the river that are still wild.

One of those dams is just 22 miles outside of Yosemite. Lake McClure is a massive reservoir created by the Exchequer Dam and owned and operated by the Merced Irrigation District. Although the reservoir typically holds about 500,000 acre-feet of water — the equivalent of about 163 billion gallons — the Merced Irrigation District and the agricultural interests it represents in the eastern Central Valley want more.

They're proposing to raise the height of Exchequer Dam in order to trap additional Merced River water in Lake McClure. But doing so would require flooding a section of the river that is protected under the Wild and Scenic Act. As a result, the irrigation district and its influential customers have been lobbying to remove the wild and scenic designation from that portion of the river.

In 2011, Republican Congressman Jeff Denham introduced a bill in the House to lift the designation. At the time, Denham's district included Exchequer Dam. His bill won approval in the House last summer on a vote 232 to 188, mostly along party lines, with Democrats voting against. The legislation, however, stalled and then died in the Senate.

As a result, McClintock — a conservative politician from Southern California who had moved to the Sierra foothills, won election to the House, and whose district now includes Exchequer Dam (because of redistricting) — introduced HR 934 earlier this year. It's nearly identical to Denham's 2012 bill. In addition, Costa, a pro-agriculture Democrat representing the San Joaquin Valley, agreed to co-sponsor McClintock's bill, thereby giving it bipartisan credentials.

Environmentalists expect that HR 934 will win approval in the Republican-dominated House, but the odds of it passing the Senate are not as strong — unless Feinstein signs on to it or strikes a compromise with her House colleagues on mutually agreeable language. "The wild and scenic designation will be difficult to defend if Feinstein supports [HR 934]," noted Ron Stork of Friends of the River, an environmental group that is leading the fight against McClintock's legislation.

A representative from Feinstein's press office did not respond to a question as to whether she plans to back HR 934, but she's been quoted by some news outlets over the past year as saying that she supports raising Exchequer Dam, which would be not allowed under federal law as long as the wild and scenic designation is in place.

Stork noted that Feinstein has also expressed support for giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the power to decide whether to raise Exchequer Dam — and thereby carve out an exception to the wild and scenic designation. Such a move would be similar to what Feinstein did on behalf of a controversial oyster farm in Point Reyes National Seashore. In that case, she authored a bill that gave then-US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar the authority to ignore federal law and allow Drakes Bay Oyster Company to keep operating on land that had been designated by Congress to become federally protected wilderness. Ultimately, Salazar declined to set a precedent and renew the oyster farm's lease, but the issue is still tied up in the courts.

In 2009, Feinstein also assisted a wealthy grower from the San Joaquin Valley, Stewart Resnick, along with state agribusiness interests, in an effort to extract more water from the Delta, and thus leave less freshwater for salmon and other fish. Resnick is a major player in California water politics and a big political campaign donor.

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