The two projects are Merced Irrigation District’s existing 101.25 megawatt Merced River Project No. 2179-043, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s (PG&E) existing 3.4-MW Merced Falls Project No. 2467-020. Prepared as part of the relicensing process for those projects, the Merced River EIS contains FERC staff evaluations of the applicants’ proposals and the alternatives for relicensing the Merced River and Merced Falls Hydroelectric Projects. The staff’s recommendation is to relicense the project as proposed, with certain modifications, and additional measures recommended by the agencies.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is authorized by the Federal Power Act to issue licenses for up to 50 years for the construction and operation of nonfederal hydroelectric development subject to its jurisdiction, on condition:
That the project adopted…shall be such as in the judgment of the Commission will be best adapted to a comprehensive plan for improving or developing a waterway or waterways for the use or benefit of interstate or foreign commerce, for the improvement and utilization of water-power development, for the adequate protection, mitigation, and enhancement of fish and wildlife (including related spawning grounds and habitat), and for other beneficial public uses, including irrigation, flood control, water supply, and recreational and other purposes referred to in section 4(e)…The Commission may also require such other conditions not inconsistent with the FPA as may be found necessary to provide for the various public interests to be served by the project. To assist in this evaluation, and as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, FERC staff prepares the EIS. It is designed to record the view of governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, affected Indian tribes, the public, the license applicants, and FERC staff.
In the Merced River cases, the licensees used FERC's Integrated Licensing Process (ILP) and filed relicensing applications in February 2012. FERC elected to process the applications for the two projects together "because they: (1) are located contiguously on the Merced River; (2) the Merced Falls Project’s operation depends entirely on flows released by the upstream Merced River Project; and (3) downstream of the Merced River Project, the environmental effects of both projects are interrelated."
Each applicant proposed some modified environmental measures in its license application, but no new capacity and no new construction at the project. In the Merced projects' 840-page final EIS, Commission staff noted that the "primary issues associated with relicensing the projects are flow regimes in project-affected reaches for aquatic resources, project effects on physical habitat for aquatic resources, protection of wildlife resources, recreation enhancements, and protection of cultural resources." After consideration, Commission staff recommended the staff alternative, which consists of measures included in Merced ID’s and PG&E’s proposals, as well as some of the mandatory conditions and recommendations made by other state and federal agencies and non-governmental organizations, plus additional measures developed by FERC staff:
We chose the staff alternative as the preferred alternative because: (1) the projects would provide a dependable source of electrical energy for the region; (2) the generation comes from a renewable resource that does not contribute to atmospheric pollution, including greenhouse gases; and (3) the recommended environmental measures proposed by Merced ID and PG&E, as modified by staff, would adequately protect and enhance environmental resources affected by the projects. The overall benefits of the staff alternatives would be worth the cost of the environmental measures.Ultimately, the Merced River hydropower relicensing project EIS concludes that "issuing new licenses for the Merced River and Merced Falls Projects, with the environmental measures we recommend, would not be major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment."