A plan is moving forward to restore meadow and riparian habitat and create a buffer zone along the Merced River in Yosemite National Park, which was damaged by flood in 1997. The plan includes improvements to such park amenities as rental facilities, campsites, and parking structures. Kenny Karst, DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc.
The Final Merced River Plan will restore areas of Yosemite National Park to a natural state while better meeting the infrastructure needs of a growing visitor population.
March 18, 2014—Finding a balance between the preservation of a federally protected natural environment and the infrastructure needs of an eager visiting public is difficult at the best of times, but even more so when a natural disaster has destroyed some facilities. In January 1997, Yosemite National Park experienced a destructive flood as heavy rainfall and melting snow caused the Merced River to overrun its banks within Yosemite Valley, where daily visitor activities are concentrated. Roughly half of the valley’s lodging facilities and campsites were washed away or destroyed by the rushing water, as were sections of the park’s highways, water and wastewater systems, trails, bridges, and picnic facilities. In the aftermath of the flooding, the damage to the park was estimated by the National Park Service to be $178 million. Developing a plan for the replacement of the park’s damaged visitor facilities—and getting that plan approved—has taken until now. The plan, the Merced Wild and Scenic River : Final Comprehensive Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement, was released last month, and its mandatory 30-day “no action” period ends this week.
First protected in 1864, Yosemite National Park is an area of extraordinary natural beauty located in northern California, within the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The park measures 1,169 sq mi—approximately the same size as the State of Rhode Island—and contains more than 18 mountain peaks that measure 12,000 ft above sea level or higher, 9 waterfalls measuring between 317 ft and 2,425 ft in height, and the headwaters of two major rivers, the Tuolumne and the Merced. The park’s highest peak, Mt. Lyell, extends 13,114 ft above sea level, while its valley floor is located at a height of 4,000 ft above sea level.
The importance of Yosemite’s elevation and size extends beyond its boundaries and natural beauty. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, fed by Yosemite’s snow pack and located along the Tuolumne River in the northwestern portion of the park, provides drinking water and hydroelectric power for the San Francisco Bay area. In total, water from Hetch Hetchy serves a total of 2.6 million residential, commercial, and industrial customers, according to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s website. (See Civil Engineering, “The Tunnel Beneath San Francisco Bay,” February 2012.)
The Merced River, on the other hand, flows down through the heart of Yosemite Valley, and is a significant feature contributing to the visitor experience of Yosemite National Park. It is this river that caused so much damage in 1997, reaching a peak height of 23.43 ft, as measured at the Pohono Bridge, which crosses the river, on January 2, 1997. The river was considered to have reached flood height at a depth of 10 ft as measured at this bridge, according to the park’s website.
The finalized Merced River Plan, the third iteration that has been considered since 1997, will “improve the health and resiliency of the park and its ecosystems, while also enhancing the visitor experience through improved transportation and parking, recreational opportunities, and defined user capacity,” according to a plan overview issued by the park. Along the river, 189 acres of meadow and riparian habitat will be restored and a buffer zone extending ¼ mi on either side of the river will be created to meet the requirements of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. (The Merced River was designated as a Wild and Scenic River in 1987.)
Additionally, 6,048 linear ft of riprap will be removed along the river’s banks. Abandoned infrastructure within the bed and banks of the river and along the protected corridor will also be removed.
The plan also includes strategies for the development of visitor facilities that are concentrated in the eastern Yosemite Valley, according to Scott Gediman, a National Park Service ranger and the assistant superintendent of public and legislative affairs at the park. “Eastern Yosemite Valley is where we’ve historically had traffic congestion, challenges for parking, campgrounds near the river, things like that,” he says. “So a lot of the infrastructure changes that we’re implementing mean we’re rebuilding campsites that were wiped away in the flood [in locations] away from the river, reconfiguring roads, reconfiguring parking—a lot of those things are going to help us with the traffic flow.”
The major changes introduced by the plan require the relocation of facilities and infrastructure to create the necessary buffer on either side of the river. Any existing campsites remaining along the river within this buffer zone will be relocated, and overall camping spaces will be expanded by 37 percent, according to the plan overview. Historically significant bridges, hotels, and lodges within the park will be retained and preserved, however.
To reduce traffic congestion within the park, the plan calls for the expansion of daily parking by 8 percent by adding additional parking areas inside and outside the park, according to the plan overview. New regional transit service and additional shuttles into the park will transport people from these areas, reducing the number of private vehicles entering, and circulating within, Yosemite Valley. Within the valley, roads accessing parking areas will be rerouted to improve traffic flow and visitor safety by reducing areas in which pedestrians must cross roads.
Streamlining the movement of people into and out of the park is a crucial step, Gediman says, because the park sees some one-day visitors who end up spending half of the 4 or 5 hours they’ve committed to the park waiting in traffic or for parking, or trying to get oriented once they leave their vehicles. “That really takes away from the experience,” he notes. “As parks people we’re good—we build campgrounds and trails, and that’s the kind of stuff that’s our bread and butter. But for Yosemite, especially, [the biggest challenge] is just transportation: roads, parking, traffic flow, signage, [and] traffic engineering.”
The park has seen the number of annual visitors fluctuate throughout the years, Gediman says. Though the current number, 4 million, is the same as 20 years ago, it dipped in between. “We went all the way down to our low of about 3.4 million in 2005, and since then, in the last seven or eight years, it’s gone back up,” he notes. But national and international economic conditions and the number of international travelers each year can have a large impact on the number of visitors the park sees annually, and one of the goals of the plan is to accommodate an increased number of visitors as economic conditions improve.
On the basis of public feedback gathered in almost 60 meetings and from approximately 30,000 public comments made to the draft plan, certain recreational facilities will be retained, Gediman says. But they will be relocated outside of the river’s buffer zone. This includes an outdoor ice skating rink that will be moved back to its original 1929 location near Curry Village, and bike and raft rental facilities that will be moved to safety. Horseback riding opportunities within the park will also be maintained and expanded.
“Our mandate as an agency is to preserve and protect the park, and provide enjoyment to the visitors,” Gediman says. “So we understand that of course there’s hiking and exploring and [activities on] the river—rafting and swimming.” But the service must weigh the needs for such commercial activities against preservation concerns. So while the draft plan initially called for some rental facilities to be removed, public comments urging the retention of such facilities resulted in relocations of the facilities, he says.
“It’s a balance between access and preservation,” Gediman says. “We want people to come in—the national parks belong to the American people and we want to afford the opportunities for people to come and enjoy the park.”
Within the next few weeks the record of decision for the plan will be signed by Chris Lehnertz, the Pacific West regional director of the National Park Service, and phasing of the work will then be decided, Gediman says. The top priority will be reconfiguring the parking options and road alignment within Yosemite Valley, he says, and the next will be the creation of new campsites to replace those lost 17 years ago to the flooding river.