But a short stretch of the river is currently in danger of becoming the first to ever lose Wild and Scenic status. Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to lift the designation on a sub-1.5-mile section in the Lower Merced River Watershed, raise the level of New Exchequer Dam, and expand the reservoir to allow for the collection of more water for use during droughts. The Senate didn’t take up the bill, but according to reporting by the Wall Street Journal, federal and local officials expect a similar bill this year.
The 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act recognizes certain rivers that have “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values,” and it requires that Congress preserve them in their ”free-flowing condition.”
Congressional action can alter a river’s Wild and Scenic status, but never before has it been entirely removed. Doing so would be problematic, according to former BLM director Robert V. Abbey, who had this to say of the Merced situation, in 2011: “[It] would, for the first time, weaken the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by de-designating a segment of a river and allowing for the inundation of portions of the remaining Wild and Scenic River, and could set a troublesome precedent.”
The Merced Irrigation Disctrict, which provides water to the area and manages Lake McClure, is advocating for de-designation as a first step in helping it deal with low-water conditions. It can’t expand the capacity of the reservoir until a federal review process occurs, which can’t happen unless Wild and Scenic status is removed. This is because increasing the size of the reservoir would flood the debated section of river, going against the act’s mandate.
A video explaining the threats to the river, below, produced by the nonprofit Friends of the River, points out that the Merced basin is habitat for the endangered sandstone salamander and a fishing ground for the bald eagle.
Whitewater rafting outfitter OARS, which leads trips on the Merced, echoed Abbey’s concerns about de-designation. “This effort to remove a section of canyon from Wild and Scenic designation in order to flood the protected river canyon has never happened before and we’re worried about the precedent it would set,” company CEO George Wendt told Adventure Journal. “The scenic beauty of the Merced River canyon is too valuable to sacrifice for the very small incremental water yield that could possibly be obtained.”
As California grapples with its water needs, the Merced debate could be a test-piece for the future. State and federal authorities are working on a proposal for a new system that would flush irrigation water around Northern California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and fund the restoration of depleted ecosystems.