New dam proposals restart 1970s-era fights

New dam proposals restart 1970s-era fights

By Colin Sullivan (ClimateWire)
May 07, 2008


ClimateWire: SAN FRANCISCO — Wallace Stegner, the chronicler of the American West, had a simple response when asked to explain the economics of California.

“Water,” he said famously. “It’s about the water.”

Stegner’s truism is relevant now more than ever. Climate change is giving the largest state economy in the United States the daunting reality of unprecedented water supply problems and a surging population. One solution that has resurfaced is new dam construction, but while the impact of greenhouse gases has added a new dimension to this debate, experts do not expect much headway in a decades-long struggle over agriculture, wildlife habitat, recreation, electricity and potable water supply.

Spurred by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), long-dormant fights over new dams and reservoirs have returned to prominence lately as the state plans for an accelerated spring runoff brought by warmer winter temperatures, the looming threat of extended drought and an increasingly water-constrained future. The state’s Department of Water Resources is studying five multibillion-dollar projects, with two — the Sites Reservoir and the Temperance Flat Dam — favored by the governor.

John Andrew, the manager of the climate change program at the state Department of Water Resources, said the case for new dams is built on a single principle: flexibility. New dams, he argued, could help ease the pressure on a system that is overtaxed and already unable to serve California’s needs, by expanding surface storage capacity, improving flood control and capturing early runoff, fresh water that would otherwise flow out to sea.

“We’re going to need to have more water supply options of all kinds,” Andrew said, mentioning dams in the same breath as groundwater, conservation, wastewater and desalination projects. “We should be looking at all of them.”

Snow melts sooner, rising seas threaten fresh water

Andrew conceded that it is too soon to say whether climate change will add more or less precipitation to the state’s natural snowpack storage system in the Sierra Nevada. Precipitation could go up or down in the decades ahead, he said, and weather systems are likely to continue fluctuating between drought years and floods.

But several effects are already clear. The snow is melting sooner, for one, and sea level rises along the coast are beginning to threaten inland fresh water supplies as seawater intrudes. “We’re already seeing a shift from snow to rain,” Andrew said. “We’re already seeing stresses on the broader water system.”

So Andrew and others at the DWR, including its director, Lester Snow, are pushing the “portfolio approach” supported by the governor, agricultural interests and many Republican lawmakers in Sacramento. This means more urban water conservation, better groundwater facilities, improved wastewater processing, research into lowering the cost of desalination and — yes — expanding existing dams and building new reservoirs to increase the capacity to catch the earlier runoff that is no longer held by mountain snowpack.

“The only thing we can say [about climate change] is it’s going to bring more uncertainty,” Andrew said. “It’s one more layer of uncertainty to a system that is already stressed, and we can’t put all our eggs in one basket.”

California’s Auburn Dam was proposed for this site in the foothills of the Sierras in the 1960s.  In the 1970s, construction was stopped by environmental groups and damage caused by a 1975 earthquake.  At the time, engineers estimated it would cost $1 billion to fix it.  A study last year says the cost to complete the dam to ease new water concerns had risen to $10 billion.  Currently, the site serves as a recreation area.  Photo courtesy of Scott Schrantz, the Computer Vet Weblog.

So projects like the Temperance Flat Dam, for instance, are seen by some as a means to defend the state’s crucial agricultural lifeblood in the Central Valley while supplying more cool water for threatened fish species. In Washington, D.C., Rep. Devin Nunes (R) argues that because the site is positioned close to the origination point of the San Joaquin River, it could be the ideal candidate for federal funding in coordination with state dollars.

“We really don’t have an alternative but to increase our ability to store and to transfer water,” said Andrew House, a legislative aide to Nunes. “You have a finite supply of water resources and a growing demand.”

Nunes is pushing a bill that would authorize funding to study Temperance Flat as a candidate for the first federal dam construction in a quarter of a century, since construction stopped and never restarted on a dam outside of Auburn, Calif. The congressman wants to see if the Temperance Flat project is economically feasible and then proceed with the debate if the results favor a new dam.

“We would pursue, based on the outcome of the study, a federal authorization of construction,” House said. “We have to find ways to be creative and get more water.”

Environmentalists see ‘no evidence’ to support new dams

While the climate may be changing, environmentalists who battled against the dams proposed in the 1970s have not. They argue that dam advocates are trotting out climate change to “greenwash” the same kind of projects that they stopped in the 1970s. They also insist that the users of the water — local water agencies and big farms — are not willing to pay for the projects themselves and only favor new development when the cost is covered by federal or state entities.

“What’s happening is climate change is the latest reason trotted out by the same old interests who want their activity subsidized by taxpayers to build new dams,” said Steve Evans, conservation director for Friends of the River.

Evans and others point out that the DWR studies have been ongoing for years and did not secure state funding in the current fiscal year (the studies are currently frozen, Andrew admitted). So accurate assessments of economic feasibility have not been supported by engineering facts, he said.

“There’s absolutely no evidence that building new dams would alleviate the problems associated with climate change,” Evans said. “Why do we build multibillion-dollar dams on the lack of information?”

Evans said the current system of 1,400 federal and state-run dams in California have more than sufficient reservoir capacity. Others say the investments don’t make sense when the alternatives — urban water conservation, for one — are cheaper and result in more water stored.

The Sites Reservoir, for example, north of San Francisco, was initially expected to cost $2 billion, but lately that cost estimate has ballooned to $5 billion. Barry Nelson, a water resources expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the history suggests “the price will go up.”

“One of the reasons dam studies are frequently delayed is because the analysis doesn’t tend to look very promising,” Nelson said. “They are just not very promising investments.”

As for Temperance Flat, Nelson said the debate “is completely premature.” The Bureau of Reclamation hasn’t decided if the project is feasible, and sources there admit the federal government will not likely foot the bill. Furthermore, Nelson said urban water agencies and agricultural water agencies have come to the conclusion (though they won’t say so publicly) that these projects are a waste of their money.

“No water user has stepped forward and said ‘I’m willing to write a check,’” Nelson said. “Taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to do it.”

“The bottom line is, building dams doesn’t cause rain,” Nelson added. “Climate change is just the newest coat of paint in an ancient fight.”

Fighting entrenched opposition and getting reluctant water users to pay

Andrew’s role in California is as a technical expert and adviser to the governor, not a political expert, but he conceded that the political opposition in California against new dams is entrenched and powerful. “There is a political reality,” he said. “Getting users to pay for the dams and getting environmentalists to let them through … that’s a tough combination.”

Even if a dam got through the engineering and economic analytical stage, lawsuits would likely delay the projects for years, said Don Strickland, a spokesman at the DWR. “It’s not even close, politically,” he said. “Anytime you propose to build anything new in California, you immediately deal with opposition.”

So are new dams a nonstarter? Nelson thinks so.

“As the dominant technology for meeting water needs, the dam-building era is over,” said Nelson, arguing that groundwater storage alone in the Central Valley and in Southern California is comparable to the entire storage capacity of the dam at Mount Shasta in Northern California.

“Dams were the predominant water supply technology of the 20th century,” he added. “That era is done.”

At least one official from a local water agency seemed to agree. Tim Anderson, of the Sonoma County Water Agency, said his agency was able to cut water deliveries by 21 percent last summer through urban water conservation and better groundwater use. He sees a potential long-term savings of 20 percent through such programs.

Still, Anderson thinks the debate is complicated and applies differently to different parts of the state.

“There are areas in California where additional water storage may be necessary to deal with climate-related changes,” he said.

Convincing farmers to change their crops is easier?

Peter Gleick, president of Oakland’s Pacific Institute, thinks another solution not often considered by the agriculture sector is a reorientation of crop growth.

Gleick said a common misconception is that crops grown as food for humans consume the most water in California. It is not the almonds or walnuts or oranges, Gleick said, but the cotton, rice, alfalfa and irrigated pastureland (to feed cows) that consume about 50 percent of all the state’s agricultural water.

“Those four crops produce only 15 percent of farm income … but consume half the water,” Gleick said. “We should grow less of those things and free up the water.”

The state should examine how much water is required to push a dollar of income for a farmer and encourage a shift in the agricultural economy to the fruits and nuts that pay off in the long run, Gleick argued. “Almonds are much better than alfalfa,” he said.

As for climate change, Gleick said the evidence does not support building new dams as a solution to increased runoff. Rather than new development, Gleick advocates adjusting the timing of when reservoirs are filled up and released.

“We couldn’t possibly build enough storage to equal the volume of snow we’re going to lose,” he said. “The traditional thinking has been to build another dam, but that’s not going to work anymore.”

He added: “Suppose we build two more dams, like the governor proposed; does anyone think the water problems we have today would disappear? The answer is no. The dams are a diversion from effective solutions.”

The answer, then? Gleick said the research points to smart management of surface water and groundwater facilities, to recharge aquifers in wet years and use them in dry years. He also believes in conservation and better wastewater management, at least until the cost of desalination comes down.

In this environment, he added, new dams may be the closest solution to a nonstarter.

“Let me put it this way: I’m not worried that we’re going to build these dams.”

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