Damning California's Future 

Hoping to capitalize on the epic drought, the state's water industry wants to usher in a new era of dam-building in the state. But environmentalists say it would cost billions and do more harm than good.

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Critics of the current dam-building plans note that they are extremely costly compared to the amount of water that they would yield. Despite the fact that the projects would add lots of capacity to store water in the state, they would likely only yield, on average, about 400,000 acre-feet of additional water per year for California because of the lack of water available — and would cost taxpayers about $9.75 billion to construct, according to an analysis by the environmental group Friends of the River. "[M]ost of the water that would fill these dams is already being diverted," explained Ronald Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River. "For example, Temperance Flat would be built on a river, the San Joaquin, that's already bone dry most of the time because its water is so over-allocated."

By contrast, according to an analysis by the California Department of Water Resources, water-saving techniques — such as wastewater reuse, stormwater capture, and groundwater cleanup — have yielded the state nearly 2 million acre-feet of water per year at the far lower cost of $5.13 billion.

The view that dams are too costly was bolstered in 2014 by the release of an Oxford University study. Researchers looked at 245 large dams built between 1934 and 2007 and found that actual construction costs were, on average, nearly double the projected costs, and that construction took 44 percent longer than forecast. "Forecasts of costs of large dams today are likely to be as wrong as they were between 1934 and 2007," the study concluded.

click to enlarge The Temperance Flat dam project is highly controversial because it would flood thousands of acres of public land in the San Joaquin River Gorge. - BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • The Temperance Flat dam project is highly controversial because it would flood thousands of acres of public land in the San Joaquin River Gorge.


California's enormous and elaborate water infrastructure — dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, gates, tunnels, and other machinations plumbed together across more than six hundred miles — is divided into numerous management regimes. The largest of these is the Central Valley Project, which is administered by the US Bureau of Reclamation and has the capacity to deliver more than 7 million acre-feet of water a year, using Shasta Dam as its linchpin.

The November 1960 water bond that authorized the State Water Project (SWP) passed by the narrowest of margins: less than one percentage point. Key to the measure's victory was the influential Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, a consortium of 14 cities and 12 municipal water districts that provides water to 18 million people in Southern California. The district only supported the bond measure after the California Department of Water Resources agreed to give it nearly half of the project's estimated annual yield of 4.23 million acre-feet of water.

Other entities that signed contracts to receive SWP water included the Kern County Water Agency and San Luis Delta-Mendota Water Authority, both of which represent large agricultural interests in the dry San Joaquin Valley."

But today, the State Water Project yields only half the water promised to these entities, or about 2.2 million acre feet. "In the old planners' minds, the SWP is only half-built," said Stork. "The question is, Where's the missing yield? And one answer would probably be Richard Wilson's answer, which is that the Department of Water Resources sought to turn the Eel River from a wild river into a series of reservoirs but failed."

One month after the State Water Project's narrow approval in 1960, the California Department of Water Resources released a blueprint for future water development entitled "Delta Water Facilities," which describes the operation of the San Luis Reservoir, Oroville Reservoir, and the pumps in the southern section of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that move water from north to south. The bulletin encourages construction of 2 million acre-feet of reservoir capacity on the Eel River by 1981. The bulletin also anticipated the completion of new dams on the Mad, Van Duzen, and Klamath rivers by 2012.

"I can't emphasize enough that it's all laid out in Bulletin 76," said Michael Jackson, a prominent water rights attorney.

The central feature of California's existing water system is the delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. The delta is also a pivotal transportation bottleneck that hinders water development: Pumping too much freshwater from it increases the salinity of the remaining water, thereby causing devastating harm to the aquatic life in the estuary and diminishing the quality of water shipped to millions of Californians.

Since the 1970s, a defining question for California water planners has been whether the delta would be unblocked to permit more water to flow from north to south, or whether there would be a paradigm shift in water policy, as suggested by the water industry's defeat at Dos Rios. The idea of building peripheral canals around the delta became the solution for delivering new water to the irrigated farms of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and to the Metropolitan Water District.

In the early-Eighties, Jerry Brown, during his first stint as governor, and the legislature sought to deliver new water to these interests by proposing a peripheral canal. Despite being dressed up with fish ladders and screens and assurances that North Coast rivers were not the target of such a facility, the Peripheral Canal was defeated in a 1982 statewide referendum. It was the second crushing rebuke of California's water industry, with the first being at Dos Rios.

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