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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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If Feinstein ultimately helps lift the wild and scenic designation from the Merced, it will destroy a picturesque yet remote section of the river that is only accessible to hikers, rafters, and boaters. "They're trying to pick off a part that is rarely visited," Stork said.

Moreover, for environmentalists and nature lovers, the precedent-setting move would be even more heart-wrenching because it likely won't provide much water to the irrigation district. District officials didn't respond to a request for comment for this story, but according to an analysis by Friends of the River, safety issues limit how much the district would be able to raise Exchequer Dam. As a result, removing the wild and scenic designation may provide no more than 12,000 acre-feet of additional water for Lake McClure, an amount that represents just 2 percent of the reservoir's normal capacity.

"They're willing to undo the wild and scenic designation in order to increase their [water] yield by a few percent," Stork said.

In addition, the irrigation district has yet to definitively say that it will raise the dam if HR 934 passes — perhaps because the district may not make enough money to pay for the needed construction from the small amount of water it stands to gain.

"They probably won't build it," Stork added. "But by then it will be too late. They would have already done the damage, set the precedent."

If the Merced River loses its wild and scenic status, then the McCloud River in Northern California is the next likely choice. For starters, the McCloud does not have full federal protection, and instead has a lesser wild and scenic status under state law. In addition, some of California's most powerful political players have had their sights on the McCloud for several years.

Near Mount Shasta, the McCloud features jaw-dropping waterfalls and offers great fishing, camping, and picnicking spots. It also runs parallel to the Sacramento River and flows into Shasta Lake, the state's largest reservoir. As a result, the McCloud plays an integral part in the state's water conveyance system, which sends massive amounts of freshwater from Northern California to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

Basically, the current system works like this: State and federal water authorities take millions of acre-feet of freshwater that sits in Shasta Lake, including water from the McCloud, and then send the water — along with additional supplies from other major reservoirs, like Lake Oroville — down the Sacramento River to the Delta. There, two giant pumps near Tracy remove the freshwater from the Delta and send it south in large canals and aqueducts.

But, currently, several factors limit the amount of water that can be shipped south. One factor is the size of Shasta Lake. If it were larger, then more water could be sent down the Sacramento and ultimately to the south. But raising the height of Shasta Dam and enlarging the reservoir would violate state law because it would flood a section of the McCloud that's protected by wild and scenic status.

That protection, however, is by no means robust, considering the powerful interests involved. Feinstein has repeatedly expressed support for raising Shasta Dam, and both the Westlands Water District and the Metropolitan Water District have complained loudly over the years about not getting enough water; both want to change state law to expand Shasta Lake. These water districts also have traditionally exerted an outsized influence on the state legislature, thanks to the millions they've spent on lobbying and donating to political campaigns.

Last December, the Metropolitan Water District's Board of Directors voted to lobby the state legislature to raise Shasta Dam. And last week, Jason Peltier, Westlands' chief deputy general manager and a former high-level Interior Department official in President George W. Bush's administration, confirmed to the Express in an interview that his district also "would support the raising of Shasta Dam."

In 2012, the US Bureau of Reclamation, which plays a major role in California water policy, released a draft report stating that raising Shasta Dam would add about 133,400 acre-feet of water to the state's water conveyance system, and that it's economically feasible to do so.

But some environmental groups have challenged the bureau's report and contend that taxpayers will ultimately have to pay at least a portion of the costs of expanding Shasta Lake because the additional water won't produce enough revenue due to the cheap water prices given to Westlands and Metropolitan. "It's a tremendous hoax on the taxpayers," said Tom Stokely of the California Water Impact Network. "Westlands Water District would be the primary beneficiary of the project."

Peltier said, however, that raising Shasta Dam won't be a high priority for Westlands until another roadblock to sending more freshwater south is removed: the Delta. Currently, the US Endangered Species Act and other federal and state environmental laws limit the amount of water pumped out of the Delta. Taking out too much freshwater would make the estuary too salty for endangered and threatened fish. Increasing water diversions would also result in the deaths of millions more Delta smelt, which get sucked into and shredded by the giant Tracy pumps that move the water. "There's a bottleneck in the Delta," Stokely said.

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