Auburn Dam, Part One

The Sacramento Union begins a three part series—with two articles—on the Auburn Dam, and it is a very good thing as it is still the best local solution to our water issues, including flooding (and protecting the Parkway from flood-caused degradation), water supply, and helping the salmon run in the lower American River.

An excerpt from the first article.

“The Auburn Dam is dead. Late last year, the state of California revoked water rights issues issued to the federal government to build the Auburn Dam. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation did not protest the move. Thus, an obscure bureaucracy and gleeful environmentalists tell us the deed is done.

“But wait: The Auburn Dam has been declared dead many, many times.

“Trying to Kill an Idea
Using one complaint and lawsuit after another, environmentalists have obstructed new surface water storage anywhere in California.

“Death by a thousand lawsuits,” Laura King Moon of State Water Contractors has said about water storage projects.

“Studies, engineering reports and lawsuits disproved or mitigated every complaint—so much so that the Auburn Dam remained a vital part of every single California Water Plan until 1998. Thereafter, a white water rafter, Jonas Minton, became deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources. As he had in the Sacramento Water Forum, Minton stacked the water planning process with environmental extremists; inflated water conservation projections; summarily dismissed any new water storage; delivered a report years late and waterless; and dropped the Auburn Dam from the state plan for the first time.

“To win, opponents of the Auburn Dam shout the loudest and speak the longest. Ultimately, intimidated bureaucrats and politicians have failed to protect the public interest they are obligated as civil servants and elected officials to protect.

“So on Dec. 2, an obscure California bureaucracy, the State Water Resources Control Board, unanimously voted to steal water from the Auburn Dam project. Last nail in the coffin, it is said…

“Expropriation and Evaporation
As of now, the water rights are gone. “Use it or lose it” is California’s water law for “expropriation.” While new state or federal law will be needed to reauthorize the dam and regain water rights, the dam will eventually be built under a number of foreseeable circumstances. “Building the Auburn Dam would help solve or alleviate a number of problems: recession, drought, flood, power blackout and climate change.

“To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the dam’s demise may be greatly exaggerated since it is impossible to kill a good idea. Flooding a scenic canyon is a small price to pay for the multiple benefits of the Auburn Dam.”

An excerpt from the second article.

“How to Pay: An Accounting Problem
It is said that no one wants to pay. This is nonsense. The Auburn Dam has many beneficiaries who can pay—agriculture, water districts, electric utilities and homeowners in flood zones. Your monthly water and electricity bill is paying off the cost of the dams and canals of the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, hydroelectric projects built by SMUD and the infrastructure of local water districts.

“Customers of State Water Contractors, which serves 30 California water districts, have paid off the entire cost of the Oroville Dam and its canals, pumps and power plants. Once claimed to be too expensive, Oroville and Folsom dams are now long paid off and saved millions in flood costs within the first few seasons of their construction. Revenue bonds will soon be paid off on hydroelectric power plants on the Middle Fork of the American River, and after 2013, the plants will continue to generate revenues. The sale of the Auburn Dam’s water and power will generate revenues to pay off its bonds, too. At the Auburn Dam site, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation very conservatively estimates that hydropower alone will produce $53-113 million annually…

“The American River Authority, a joint powers agency of San Joaquin, El Dorado and Placer County agencies, polled Sacramento voters in December 2005. Told that the dam would provide 500-year flood protection and water for drinking, wildlife, electricity and recreation, 62 percent supported an Auburn Dam, only 25 percent opposed. The 2005 ARA poll determined respondents’ top issue to be “protecting our water supply from pollution and other contamination,” at 65 percent, (like the flood disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina).

“The Auburn Dam Council conducted surveys of voters in El Dorado, Placer and Sacramento counties with 58, 59 and 62 percent supporting it, respectively. And the entire California GOP Congressional delegation urged the water board not to revoke water rights….

“Means to an End
There are many ways to build a dam. It might be as simple as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Mayor Johnson informing Congress they want to reauthorize the Auburn Dam. Perhaps the Auburn Dam makes it on to President Obama’s infrastructure list. Even lacking political leadership, willing buyers and sellers of water and power might support a state or regional initiative—one not larded with “pay to play” pork and boutique environmental projects. A real dam with real water in it just might be the ticket.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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