That was the tactic used in the answer to the third question in this Q & A from the Sacramento Bee about the drought: Why don’t we build the Auburn dam?
The first two reasons are easily addressed when the Congress gives the go ahead for Auburn to be built, which at some point it will.
The other reason given, that it doesn’t store enough water, is the misdirection (and one that is also being used by the environmentalists opposing the dam). By adding in the increased storage Auburn would create and subtracting the already committed amounts, the Bee comes up with a mere 200,000 acre feet, misdirecting the argument to: that isn’t enough new water to justify the expense of building Auburn Dam.
However, when you take into account the reality, like this year, when those who have water committed aren’t getting it, because not enough is in the storage system, it becomes obvious that the argument is merely an attempt to further impede the building of Auburn Dam, not a serious addition to the public discussion.
The Auburn dam project is laden with complexities and controversy, and these are just two reasons it has not been built.
Congress first authorized the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to build the Auburn dam in 1965. The concrete arch dam was proposed near the city of Auburn in Placer County, upstream of Folsom Reservoir. Earthquake risk stalled the project a few years later. It would have stored about 2.3 million acre-feet of water by flooding the north and middle forks of the American River.
There are two main reasons it’s unlikely to be revived. First, although the Bureau of Reclamation still is authorized to build the Auburn dam, no planning is underway to build it. Also, Congress never has allocated sufficient money to build it, and none is allocated now. In 2008 the State Water Resources Control Board withdrew water rights associated with the project because Reclamation had made no progress toward using those rights (because it had no money for construction). So even if Reclamation got money to build the dam, it has no water to store it.
The most recent cost estimate to build the dam put the price between $6 billion and $10 billion. This 2007 study was ordered by former Republican Rep. John Doolittle and completed by Reclamation. So, yes, the estimated $68 billion cost to build high-speed rail would be more than enough to build the Auburn dam.
But the study highlighted other challenges. For instance, there’s a difference between how much water a dam can store and its “water yield.” The latter term refers to the amount of “new” water a dam would able to deliver to cities and farms, vs. water it would be required to pass through because it already is obligated to some other purpose.
The 2007 study put Auburn’s water yield at 200,000 acre-feet – a relatively small amount for a reservoir of that size and cost – largely because a lot of other obligations have emerged in the last 50 years, including water flows for endangered fish.
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