Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Auburn Dam on the Table, Part Two

At last, the taboo is broken and in this story from Sunday's Bee, a public discussion in a major media source is engaged regarding the possibility of building a dam to protect Sacramento from flooding, and though we don't agree with the Bee's findings, we are happy to see the subject raised.

We also agree that the projected size of the Auburn Dam’s water storage, as currently designed, is too small to offer optimal protection against the volume of run-off generated by the storms of the last fifty years and we hope to see from the current re-studying of the dam an understanding that it needs to store much more water.

Thanks again to the Bee for bringing this debate into the open public forum and as incomplete as their reporting was, it is a good start.

Here is an excerpt.

Tempting fate: A torrent of doubts
Project backers expect electricity, water and flood protection, but critics call it pie-in-the-sky
By Matt Weiser -- Bee Staff Writer Published Sunday, February 19, 2006

American taxpayers have had an unsteady relationship with the Auburn dam: $400 million spent so far on a dam that was never built; another $30 million through the end of this year to restore the former construction site; and now $1 million more to study whether to build the dam after all.

Since Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, Auburn dam supporters have rallied behind the project anew, suggesting it should be revived to protect Sacramento from a similar disaster.

The debate over the dam has always been politically charged, but an analysis by The Bee found an Auburn dam also could be an expensive mistake.

Supporters want to build a multiuse dam, which would rely on water sales, hydroelectric power and recreation fees to offset a likely cost of $5 billion.

But as a reservoir, an Auburn dam would create a limited new water supply, producing too little water and electricity to pay for itself, and at prices one potential buyer likened to champagne.

And that's only the beginning of the contradictions between dream and reality.

"It has become kind of like a religious site," said Butch Hodgkins, a member of the state Reclamation Board who once lobbied Congress for the dam as executive director of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency.

"The dam is incredibly controversial because it runs flat into the fundamental beliefs of fiscal conservatives and environmentalists. It is, in effect, financially and politically impossible at this time, so you better get a good pair of water wings, or you better find something else."

For more than two decades, Rep. John Doolittle, R-Roseville, has led the Auburn dam faithful. It was he who persuaded the government to spend $1 million on another dam study by attaching it to an energy and water appropriations bill in November.

In an interview Friday, Doolittle dismissed every criticism of the dam, from earthquake risk to the cost of the water it would provide.

"Any dam will eventually pay for itself," Doolittle said. "If you build a multipurpose dam, it's a moneymaking machine because it generates the sale of electricity and of water. The project is alive and well, and it begs to be completed."

But most water and flood-control experts consider the Auburn dam a fantasy.

"It's a dam that makes no economic, environmental or flood-control sense, given the realities of California's water situation," said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an independent water-policy think tank in Oakland. "The attraction of building big concrete things is palpable. But it's just no longer realistic, and it's no longer necessary."

The Auburn dam may end up being the most expensive dam that never was, with $400 million and counting spent since the project was authorized by Congress in 1965. Earthquake risk halted the project in 1979, leaving behind a gravel pit where a wild left-hand bend in the river used to flow.

The dam's problems, culled from dozens of interviews and thousands of pages of public records reviewed by The Bee, include the following:

* Auburn dam capacity could reach 2.3 million acre-feet of water, but it would be able to sell, at most, 350,000 acre-feet in an average year because someone else owns the rest. Although this could serve 700,000 homes, a recent state study found that California can meet its needs through 2030 by maximizing conservation and recycling, producing five times more water than an Auburn dam at a fraction of the cost.

* Water out of an Auburn dam would be very expensive. A decade-old federal study estimates it could cost almost $1,000 per acre-foot; dam supporters say it could run to $2,000 per acre-foot. The going rate for water today rarely exceeds $500 per acre-foot.

* It would be the most costly dam in American history. Supporters use $3 billion as a working estimate; others say $5 billion. The U.S. government pays only 65 percent of the flood-control portion of a new dam, requiring a local sponsor to pay for everything else. There is no local sponsor.

* The dam faces numerous environmental obstacles. In 1996, the U.S. Geological Survey said earthquake risk may be far greater than originally thought. And the dam might hurt recreation more than it helps because an average of 1 million people a year now enjoy the canyons that the dam would submerge.

Economic challenges

An Auburn dam's biggest challenges have always been economic, in part because its location, just east of the city of Auburn, was never a great place for a dam.

The best spots allow a small dam that creates a vast reservoir. Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, for instance, blocks a narrow slot canyon, storing 28.5 million acre-feet of water.

Auburn dam would be as tall as Hoover, but more than three times as wide. Yet it would store just 8 percent of Hoover's water because the canyons behind it are so short and narrow.