Principles: The underlying principles of MERG are to inform, educate and engage the community as to issues that affect our environment, to conduct scientific and legal research within our capabilities in furtherance of our education and information mission, and to observe and report on local government issues, efficiency, and effectiveness.
Values: Sparking debate and community action through respectful and honest presentation of fact; educating the public with integrity and respect for all opinions; and, seeking commonality and coalitions with other groups to solve community issues.
National Park Service Lawsuit and Merced River Plan
This past year has seen further progress in the implementation of the Settlement Agreement between MERG, Friends of Yosemite Valley and the National Park Service. By way of background, MERG has disagreed with the National Park Service over planning in Yosemite National Park for much of the past twelve years. This resulted in lawsuits being filed against the NPS in which FOYV and MERG prevailed. During 2011, we have continued to work closely with Yosemite NP staff to implement the Settlement Agreement.
We are still waiting for the YNP staff to properly address the concerns of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals as expressed in the Footnote 5 portion of their decision. That is, the crux of the settlement agreement is that a user capacity analysis is a foundation for any elements/alternatives to protect the Wild and Scenic Merced River for now and future generations.
We are pleased to again report that Park staff has been very competent, professional and cordial. Park staff and consultants have been addressing a multitude of issues and they have been generally responsive to our suggestions and requests. We continue to meet with Park staff on a regular basis to include the Superintendent who has been cooperative and gracious. We look forward to completion of the new Merced River Plan in July 2013. We have attended all workshops and science days and provided much verbal and written input to Park staff.
The Environmental Assessment done for Half Dome particularly encouraged us. While this is beyond the scope of the Merced River Plan, we did like the approach used by Yosemite National Park staff particularly in regard to user capacity. MERG did comment favorably on this to the Park Superintendent. However, we are cautious about the approach taken by Park staff to getting public input on alternatives concepts without the user capacity information required by the settlement agreement. While we see some progress, much work remains to be done. We intend to unrelentingly press on to a satisfactory conclusion.
Congressman Denham Sponsored Bills – Raising the Level of Lake McClure
In March 2011, MERG learned that our own Representative to Congress, Jeff Denham, had introduced a bill, H.R. 869 that, if enacted, would remove protections afforded by the Wild and Scenic River Act from a segment of the Merced River above Lake McClure. H.R. 869 would allow the Merced Irrigation District (MID) to raise the maximum allowed level of Lake McClure 10 feet via a spillway modification project which would result in flooding one half mile of the Merced River above the lake – a section of the River that is currently protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA). The WSRA was passed in 1968 specifically to protect rivers or segments of rivers from the ever-increasing pressure to dam the nation’s rivers. If passed, H.R. 869 would set an alarming precedent in removing protection from a segment of a Wild and Scenic River.
After introduction of H.R. 869 and the questions it generated, Representative Denham introduced a second bill, H.R. 2578 in July 2011. The wording of H.R. 869 led to much discussion about when and how often flooding of the River would be allowed, and the fact that it would remove protection from inundation under the WSRA without removing the listing of the segment as a Wild and Scenic River.
To address these questions, Denham introduced H.R. 2578. This bill was much more direct in its approach. It simply moved the Wild and Scenic boundary between the reservoir and the river upstream one half mile, thus delisting that segment of the river from the WSRA. H.R. 2578 passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee in October 2011, but has not been passed by the House.
As soon as H.R. 869 was introduced on the House floor, MERG began gathering facts about the impact of the bill and posted the information on an extensive series of pages on the MERG website, which quickly became a top Google hit on H.R. 869 and later H.R. 2578. As part of our due diligence efforts we toured the MID facilities at the New Exchequer Dam and spillway that form Lake McClure, and talked extensively with MID’s Governmental Affairs and Operations managers. We have also had numerous email and phone contacts with the environmental staff of key Congressmen and Senators on these bills.
Based on our research and meetings with MID, MERG distributed a press release to local and state media that emphasized the economic impact of the Merced River on the economy of Mariposa County, concentrating on the monies brought into the county by the whitewater rafting industry that depends on a free flowing river. We also sent formal letters with an accompanying fact sheet to over 60 government and administrative officials informing them of the negative. In August 2011, in anticipation that MERG representatives would need to travel to Washington D.C. in early 2012, to provide testimony before congress relative to our position on raising Exchequer Dam, we applied for an environmental grant from Patagonia and received $3,000 for travel expenses which we have not yet spent..
General Plan Implementation
In December 2006, after 6 years of work and expenditure of almost $2 million of County taxpayer money, Mariposa County completed its 20-year update of its 1981 General Plan. Since then it has taken only mini-steps toward implementation. Its most foundational implementation step, bringing Title 17, Zoning Ordinance, into compliance with the General Plan has not yet been carried out. Its most critical area-planning step, the Catheys Valley Community Plan (CVCP), has not yet been adopted.
Catheys Valley (Board) Plan
This is to distinguish the current (Board) Plan, rewritten by the Board of Supervisors in 2010-2011, following a redo, over a period of ten months, of the 86 public hearings/meetings held by the CV community from 1995 to 2008. This action by the Board mocked the intent of the General Plan that mandates 16 area plans, to be recommended by an appointed community planning advisory committee, of which Catheys Valley is one. In the end, the Board of Supervisors, not the Community Planning Advisory Committee, and a group representing development interests, rewrote the community plan.
Because of the extent of the changes, the Board’s action necessitated additional consultant and attorney costs in recirculation of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR). The SEIR was published in March 2012 and is currently in the commenting period, which ends April 16, 2012. The Planning Commission reviewed the materials on April 7, 2012, and the document will be before the Board of Supervisors for “final” action in June 2012.
During the hearings, MERG provided input and testimony that if the Board made substantial changes, enormous additional cost would follow, from the cost of personnel and Board time devoted to the effort, to attorneys and consultants. Using the County’s own hourly labor costs, combined with contractual fees for attorneys and consultants, the Board of Supervisors incurred somewhere in excess of $300,000 in additional taxpayer costs, between 2009 and 2011, on changing a community plan that was ready for adoption in 2009. And, still, the County is not protected from lawsuit should any party choose to challenge the Board’s action on the Catheys Valley (Board) Plan.
This work was carried out by a majority of the Board (excepting Supervisor Bibby of District 3) to create a new vision for Catheys Valley, based on the viewpoint of a majority of the Board, written to meet the demands of the development community. This same development community posited to the Planning Commission in early April 2012 that the County moved most of the way to where they wanted it to be, but not all the way. They now want the County to include in final action on the Catheys Valley plan the ability to have package wastewater treatments systems allowed and a community water system, so that “the water tank will not be a wasted investment.” MERG has entered comment into the public record that any such move is contrary to the general plan that calls for continued build out of communities with already existing water and wastewater.
Such a move by the Board of Supervisors will result in additional taxpayer dollars for additional supplemental environment impact reviews to study the many environmental effects of wastewater treatment and community water, not for the general public’s good, but for the good of a few landowner/developers. MERG has engaged legal support in providing input and will continue to monitor Board action. This very serious situation may require MERG to issue a legal challenge, as the very tenets of the County General Plan are at stake. MERG will also monitor progress on this development proposal, and is adamantly opposed to further taxpayer dollars being spent on environmental review for this private project. This developer has every right following adoption of the Catheys Valley Community Plan to apply for a General Plan Amendment, and submit environmental studies to support the amendment request.
Historical Parcels and Certificates of Compliance
Vigilant readers of this newsletter may recall that this item is very similar to what we wrote last year. That is because the issue still exists and continues to be a threat to orderly land development and the General Plan of Mariposa County. The historical parcels and certificates of compliance issue remains a particularly challenging and difficult area for us. It deals with laws that go back to the mid-nineteenth century and all years in between then and now, land use, zoning, real estate, and a multitude of related issues. It is also fertile ground for misrepresentation and deception on the part of greedy landowners and their representatives.
For definition purposes, historical parcels are pieces of land that were created usually by federal patents in the nineteenth century. A certificate of compliance is issued by the County to “certify” that a particular piece of real estate is essentially the same now as it was when the original patent was created. If this is indeed the case, then that land is not subject to current zoning laws and can be used as the owner wishes, such as development. This clearly subverts the general plans throughout the state, efforts at enforcing zoning laws, controlling development, etc. State law in this area is both deficient and lacking. We said this last year and the situation is unchanged.
The battles are usually fought at County level and this is the front line of defending Mariposa County’s General Plan. While there have been no new suspect certificate of compliance issues, we remain alert for them. Last year at this time, we were prepared to go to court to contest an appeal by a landowner for a certificate of compliance that was turned down by the Board of Supervisors. We were present in the Mariposa County Court House when the case was heard. We had thought that this may have presented an opportunity to create new case law that could prove vital to not only our own interests, but also to many other proponents of controlled development throughout California. For better or worse, the case was dismissed because of the lack of timely filing in accordance with the Subdivision Map Act. We dodged that “bullet” so to speak, but we expect more to come in the future. We have to prevail in these cases to preserve the character of our County and our way of life.
It’s Baaack!...Mining, That is!
With the rise in the value of hard metals, some folks are seeing “gold in them thar hills.” For those of us who remember the Golden Bell Mining project, a cyanide heap leach mining operation near the Merced River (opposition to which caused MERG’s formation in 1989), it was déjà vu, all over again, when we heard in 2011 that a Canadian mining company was considering the purchase of the historic J. C. Fremont Pine Tree and Josephine mines perched above Lake McClure just before the Bagby Bridge off Hwy. 49. The firm’s interest, however, waned before the purchase was completed.
During the same period of time, the owner of the former Mr. Gaines Mine, which operated as a gold mine up to 1949-50, appealed a finding by the Planning Director that he was not vested for an open pit aggregate mining operation that would have created a pit almost 300 feet deep at one end and covered most of 160 acres of land. His project resulted in a finding by the Board of Supervisors that MERG believes sent a mixed signal to the property owner.
At the time, MERG provided input to the Board of Supervisors that the operation, as proposed, could result in 250 tandem truckloads of aggregate per day traveling Bear Valley and/or Hornitos Roads, past single family residences in two ranching communities. This property owner has a lawsuit pending against the County to appeal the action of the Board of Supervisors. We recommend that you pay close attention to the outcome of this lawsuit.
Environment California contacted MERG in January 2012 to request our support on their initiative to encourage President Obama and Secretary of the Interior Salazar to establish a moratorium on new hard rock mines within a 10-mile radius of Yosemite National Park. Environment California is a statewide environmental advocacy organization that is attempting to protect Yosemite in the same way that other environmental groups encourage the Obama administration to limit new mining around the Grand Canyon. Specifically, in early January 2012, President Obama ordered a 20-year ban on all new mining claims on more than one million acres of national forest and other public land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.
While MERG was originally organized to research and educate the County on the potential effects of a cyanide heap leach mining operation near the Merced River, we declined to support Environment California’s initiative.
MERG initially suggested that such ban include protection from mining operations some distance back from the boundaries of the Wild and Scenic Merced River. Subsequently, MERG declined to support the initiative because in their final proposal, Environment California proposed a ban on mining within a 50-mile radius around Yosemite – which we believe is excessive.
MERG will continue to monitor mining activities in our area and take action as necessary and appropriate to limit new initiatives that may not be subjected to appropriate environmental scrutiny.
Integrated Regional Water Management Plan (IRWM)
MERG continues to maintain a representative on the IRWM team. The critical need for a Mariposa IRWMP, the only state funding mechanism for current and future water management projects, compelled the MCRCD to regroup this year and to submit a second Regional Acceptance Process proposal last spring for the subsequent funding cycle. The MCRCD agreed to remain the fiscal sponsor for the project, and stakeholders representing a broad spectrum of local agencies and nonprofits, including MERG, formalized in July a Regional Water Management Group, creating the initial governance structure for the ensuing process.
Meeting monthly with the assistance of a professional facilitator provided by the SNC and with strong guidance and support from the DWR, the RWMG developed an RFP for a planning consultant. In early 2012 the a firm was selected to prepare a planning grant application that was submitted to the DWR on March 8. The DWR’s decisions on planning grant awards are expected this summer. In the meantime a support grant from the DWR for facilitation services provided by the Center for Collaborative Planning is enabling the RWMG to proceed with work in further developing the IRWMP governance structure and the criteria for prioritizing and selecting projects. The projects ultimately chosen will be incorporated into the final Integrated Regional Water Management Plan, assuming the planning grant now under consideration is eventually approved.
Board of Supervisors Issues – Responsible Government
MERG has requested the Board to provide for an on-line source for all postings and notices that require public advertisement. This would provide an excellent source of information for county residents to be informed of any kind of action in the county in one place. While we have suggested this several times over the past few years, progress has been slow but there is evidence that this is moving forward. We also requested the Board in the course of one of their weekly meetings to better manage the consent agenda. That is, if an item is postponed for further discussion that it be handled as part of the consent agenda and not postponed until after the last item on the overall agenda, which might not come up until late in the afternoon. This would provide for more efficient use of staff time, as staff would not have to wait in the Board chamber until the item is heard or return at the end of day for the Board to deliberate. Neither would members of the public who wish to address a particular postponed issue be inconvenienced by this inefficient Board practice.
Ferguson Slide Repair
This has not been a very visible topic this past year but we have not forgotten it. As you will recall, MERG supported the option to repair Highway 140 along the previous alignment on the south side. Because of the limestone salamander, which is an endangered species, the County felt it necessary to work with State legislators to secure legislative relief in this particular instance. That effort is presently underway and we are optimistic that the law will pass and there will be no noticeable effect on the Endangered Species Act. We will continue to monitor this to ensure that our original objective of maintaining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act is attained.
Sierra Nevada Alliance Conference
Four MERG board members attended the 18th Annual Sierra Nevada Alliance Workshop held on August 19th and 20th in South Lake Tahoe. The Conference included a number of very informative presentations and workshops. Mr. John Laird, California Secretary for Natural Resources, gave an excellent presentation on the intersection of environmental efforts and state politics. There were several workshops that addressed issues ranging from climate change to effective communication. MERG board member Rita Kidd also gave a brief presentation on MERG’s history and current issues, including our efforts to prevent expansion of activities at the Mt. Gaines Mine without appropriate environmental review as well as our efforts to educate Mariposans about protecting the Merced WSRA (see page 2). A number of conference participants had not been aware of Denham’s legislation and expressed interest in supporting our efforts.
Keeping in line with our focus on environment, in 1992 MERG joined this the Adopt-A-Highway effort and adopted a two-mile stretch of Highway 49 North, which includes the historic town of Bear Valley. 2012 will be our 21st year. The litter pickup takes a little more than an hour and is good exercise for Board Members and we appreciate the help of volunteers. Please email if you would like to join us.
MERCED RIVER CLEANUP DAY
MERG will again join with other volunteers and local agencies for the fourth annual Great Sierra River Cleanup Day on Saturday, September 15. We will work on our favorite watershed, the Merced WSRA. We are committed to participate again in 2012! Specific plans will be announced, but previous efforts have focused on the Briceburg area with separate groups covering parts of several miles up and down river. This takes three hours and is over by noon. The range of cleanup tasks can involve every level of ability and age and we hope to have a good volunteer turnout this year to represent MERG. Let us know if you would like to join us.
As most readers of this newsletter will be aware, MERG has maintained a website since 2003. Over the years we have revised it and done fine-tuning and we feel that it is an excellent source of information on the wide variety of topics that affect our County. In 2010, our Webmaster optimized the site (without charge) for search purposes. This has clearly paid off as during the past year we received numerous inquiries from county residents, students, other environmental organizations and even the United Nations seeking information. We just recently received a delightful letter from an elementary school class in Virginia that has been using our site to learn about the web and environment and asked if we could list some of their favorite links, which, of course, we can. If you have not already done so, we encourage you to visit the site at www.merg-mariposa.org. Mike Bird at Iron Mountain Systems graciously hosts the site as a public service.
The mailing of our annual newsletter with the enclosed form for donations is very important to us at it is our main source of revenue. As you are aware, we have ongoing work to develop a new Merced River Plan that has involved significant legal expenses and we also continue to work on the Mariposa County General Plan that has also necessitated legal advice. Just in the last few days we have had to obligate funds to both our land use attorneys and to our Merced River Plan legal team for crucial advice and assistance. Without the help of our membership, our efforts will be very adversely affected. Please consider the future of our County and contribute as you may be able to do so. We will appreciate it very, very much.
John P. Brady, Chairman
Barton A. Brown, Chairman Emeritus
Rita C. Kidd, Secretary
James T. Kidd
Len McKenzie, Vice-Chairman
Stephen H. Smallcombe
Jim Spotts, Treasurer
We invite you to renew or initiate a new Associate Membership in MERG with a contribution. We appreciate your support this year, again, as MERG continues its community education/information work related to General Plan implementation, area planning, providing public input on land use and environmental issues, and participating in forest and watershed health programs. At the same time, we provide ongoing input for good County governance, transparency and responsible financial management.
We have heard the message that the broader community continues to expect a high quality of life in Mariposa County. We will continue to champion the land use and governance issues that our membership and supporters believe in.