Merced agency files re-licensing bid for hydroelectric facilities

WASHINGTON — New beach sand is coming to Lake McClure.

So are new grills and picnic tables. A couple of new swim platforms are on the way, along with some small cabins. Expect more trails, a playground and an aerator that sprays lagoon water on frolicking kids.

Just be patient.

On Friday, taking a crucial step in a painfully long minuet, federal regulators published the Merced Irrigation District's formal bid to renew licensing for its Merced River hydroelectric facilities. Spanning over 1,600 pages, the application and its accompaniments shed considerable light on the irrigation district's plans — and include a bit about recreation opportunities.

Before this is done, many more words will be spilled, perhaps along with some political blood.

"These are very long, and very expensive," Bryan Kelley, the irrigation district's director of regulatory affairs, said of the relicensing process Friday.

First approved in 1964, the overall Merced River project includes Lake McClure and its New Exchequer Dam powerhouse as well as a powerhouse at McSwain Reservoir, about six miles away.

The Merced Irrigation District has already been working on its relicensing for several years, and it has several more years to go. The current license expires in February 2014; the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission schedule published Friday calls for a final environmental study by February 2015.

Between now and then, a lot of people will be weighing in. Members of Congress will be among them.

The application published Friday cites some four dozen public agencies and private organizations tracking the Merced River project, ranging from Trout Unlimited and the California Hydropower Reform Coalition to the National Park Service and federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

Notably, the application also cites a bill authored by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, Calif., which would allow the irrigation district to consider modifying the existing New Exchequer spillway gates. The $40 million upgrade would allow the irrigation district to capture up to 70,000 additional acre-feet in Lake McClure during wet years.

Lake McClure can currently hold about 1 million acre-feet of water.

"We need to be able to save and store the excess water in wet years for when the inevitable drought occurs," Denham said during a hearing last year.

The Obama administration, though, casts the Denham bill as an "unprecedented" intrusion on the Merced River's existing wild-and-scenic protections, and environmental organizations including Friends of the River oppose it. It is currently awaiting House action.

For now, the irrigation district is not seeking to change hydropower generation and stream flow. This will change, once new fish population studies are completed in 2013.

The district does, however, spell out a number of proposed new recreation facilities at both McSwain and McClure. The area known as McClure Point, for instance, is slated to gain a large group shelter with picnic tables and grills sufficient to serve 90 people, while McSwain would gain a 4.1-mile dirt trail, among other additions.

The district currently spends an average of $3.4 million annually on environmental and recreation operations and maintenance; this would increase to an average of $5.9 million annually over the next 30 years, according to the application.

"These existing facilities were built in the late 60s and 1970s, so their expected lifespan will expire over the course of the new license," Kelly noted.

The publically available part of the application runs 1,672 pages over three volumes. Additional material is kept secret, in part because it's classified as covering "critical energy infrastructure." In other words, no one wants terrorists to get hold of it.

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