Sacramento – The Merced River, a tributary of the San Joaquin River in California’s San Joaquin Valley, has been known by local anglers for its fine trout, black bass and catfish fishing over the years.
The legendary river flows from the snow-crested peaks of the Sierra Nevada through the Yosemite Valley to the Valley floor, with the river’s waters — and upstream migration by salmon and steelhead — being stopped along the way by McClure and McSwain dams.
I remember an epic day fishing the river on March 1, 1984 with Carlos Alvarez of Livingston and two friends in two canoes. We caught lots of largemouth bass, along with a few smallmouths up to 4 pounds, on the river and its adjoining ponds from Highway 59 down river several miles. It was one of the best bass fishing trips I have ever experienced.
Many years later, I found superb fishing for trout on the Merced below El Portal while fishing with two friends for two days in a row. All of the trout were beautiful, steelhead-like wild rainbows in the 16 to 18 inch range.
The river has also been known historically for its big Chinook salmon runs. The most memorable year was in 1985 when my longtime friend Felix Alvarez reported epic salmon fishing on the river that fall.
Unfortunately, the Merced has been closed to salmon fishing for many years, due to the sharp decline of fall Chinook runs caused by decades of water diversions by agribusiness.
In late 2022, the Merced River, the14th biggest river in California, ran completely dry for four months near its confluence point with the San Joaquin River, according to Friends of the River.
“The river, which serves as essential habitat for listed species including spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead, was impassable,” said Keiko Mertz, policy director for Friends of the River (FOR), a conservation group in Sacramento. “This issue ended up buried in bureaucratic correspondence, so this story of a major California river running dry was never told to the public. That was until FOR uncovered it and stepped up to deliver the public the truth.”
After providing the previously undisclosed story of the Merced River secretly running dry in 2022 for a piece written by Raymond Zhong of the New York Times, FOR is now calling upon the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt permanent dry season baseflow regulations on the Merced River.
“The story of the Merced River running dry is as much about poor policy decisions as it is about climate change,” said Merz. “We need to systemically change how we allocate water in the state through water rights reform so that these issues don’t occur again.”
According to Erik Ekdahl, Deputy Director of the Water Board, the river’s lengthy dry spell was the result of “legal diversions.”
Per the NYT article: “In investigating the matter, the board has so far found that the river most likely went dry as a result of people taking water legally, Mr. Ekdahl said. In other words, local farmers do not appear to have violated the Board’s drought controls that year by slurping up every last drop.”
“A dry river is a catastrophe,” said Keiko Mertz [in the NYT piece], “The water board should anticipate, manage and prevent this from happening.”
Earlier this month, Friends of the River urged the Water Board to adopt permanent minimum flow regulations on the Merced River to prevent this from happening again. FOR is again calling upon the Water Board to act urgently on this issue.
“FOR is committed to reshaping the narrative that California is hopelessly dry. Rather, FOR believes the state suffers from outdated water management policies that divert water for unsustainable uses. With sweeping reforms to water rights and regulation, FOR is confident that California can achieve water sustainability,” concluded Merz.
For more information on Friends of the River, visit https://www.friendsoftheriver.org.