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Crisis brings back talk of Auburn dam
By David Whitney, Bee Washington Bureau
(Published March 5, 2001)
WASHINGTON -- Five years after a bipartisan effort to build an Auburn dam was so discredited in Congress that Sacramento-area legislators couldn't even get it out of committee, talk is resurfacing about the need to complete the massive American River project.
This time it is not flood or drought that is provoking the talk, but power. A small but vocal group of Republicans in Washington and Sacramento is pushing hydroelectric generation for a power-starved state as the dam's third leg of justification.
So far, the only bill pending is in the state Senate, where Sen. Rico Oller, R-San Andreas, has introduced legislation calling for a statewide vote on issuing state revenue bonds to build the dam. He faces an uphill effort given that the measure would require a two-thirds vote of the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
In an interview, Oller said he thinks that now is the best opportunity in a decade or more to authorize the multipurpose dam.
"The next crisis that looms is going to be much greater than the one we're in now, and that's going to be water," Oller said. "This is the time to address them in Auburn dam. It is a big part of the solution to both problems."
Oller's bill would pay off construction bonds for the dam, now expected to cost as much as $2.5 billion, with revenues from selling the power and water. But Congress first would have to approve some sort of land transfer or lease of the dam site and lake-bed property for the project to proceed under state authority.
Oller said he has been in preliminary discussions about federal legislation with Rep. John Doolittle, R-Rocklin, a fierce advocate of the dam in Congress. Fellow House Republicans Doug Ose of Sacramento and Wally Herger of Marysville also are lending support to a new Auburn dam initiative.
"We are going to see with water the same kind of disaster we've just seen with electricity -- except even worse," said Herger. "I think it is imperative that we move forward with Auburn dam."
Ironically, among those who are most skeptical now are Doolittle and Sacramento Democratic Rep. Robert Matsui. While the two have had their differences, both also have had their noses bloodied before over their support of the dam.
The power crisis might be generating new talk about the dam, Matsui said, but "my belief is that would probably not revive it."Doolittle said in an interview that he thinks the politics in Sacramento would have to change fundamentally before the dam's prognosis brightens.
"Just because something makes sense doesn't mean it's going to happen," Doolittle said. "You've got a numerically small but politically intense opposition to this project. ... This energy crisis would have to be a lot longer-lasting and deeper than it's been so far."
Meanwhile, Doolittle said, he is lifting his long-standing opposition to the closure of the water-diversion tunnel around the dam site, saying that to continue fighting only risks a lawsuit that would hold up a permanent pumping station to deliver river water to Placer County.
"I'm somewhat in a barrel over this one," Doolittle conceded. "I'm tired of backing up on Auburn dam. Closing that tunnel is a step backward. It's just a tragedy. But primary to me is to make sure Placer County gets the water it needs and avoids a building moratorium."
Doolittle said he thinks it is going to take a catastrophe such as a major power shortage, a withering drought or a serious Sacramento flood -- "all of which could happen in the same year" -- for life to be breathed back into the moribund dam project.
When originally authorized in 1965, the dam was envisioned as a provider of flood protection for Sacramento, plus a new supply of power and water. The multipurpose project would back water for 20 miles up the lower and middle forks of the American River.
Roughly $300 million in federal money already has been spent on the dam. Construction began in 1967 but was halted a dozen years later after an earthquake raised questions about design safety. Those were resolved a few years later, but by then the free-flowing river was becoming an important recreational area. Environmentalists teamed up with fiscal conservatives to create a formidable bloc of opposition that persists, and may be even stronger, today.
Two key votes in the past decade are clues that in Washington, the right formula for building the massive project may never be found. In 1992, an effort led by Sacramento-area Democrats Matsui and Vic Fazio, who has since retired, went down in a humiliating 273-140 House vote.
They had proposed a limited $700 million flood-control dam whose gates would be open to a free-flowing river except when storms posed a downstream flood threat. But their proposal left open the possibility of someday expanding the dam, closing the gates and creating a lake for recreation, irrigation and power generation.
The Matsui-Fazio initiative failed so badly in part because of Republican opposition. Many Republicans followed the lead of Doolittle, who voted against the measure because the dry dam wouldn't have been easily expandable into the permanent structure he wanted to supply water for his fast-growing suburban district.
Four years later, the Sacramento-area congressional delegation united behind a larger $950 million dam. They said its gates would be closed only to hold back floodwaters, but the measure authorized its operation as a multipurpose dam.
Even with Republicans in control of the House and with the backing of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, that measure was killed on a 35-28 vote of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Doolittle declared the dam dead for the year.
Since then, the efforts in Congress have focused primarily on improving flood-control protection for the Sacramento area, and there have been no further efforts to revive the dam's construction.
But interest in an Auburn dam is stirring again because of the electricity crisis and an even larger problem looming behind the current power shortage --water.
There has been no new storage capacity built for water in California since 1976, while demand has grown dramatically because of a surging population and new environmental restrictions.
"The state is headed toward a water crisis that will dwarf the energy crisis in a relatively short time," said Tom Aiken, manger of the Bureau of Reclamation's Central California area office.
For agricultural users, the crisis already is here, said Jason Peltier, general manager of the Central Valley Project Water Association.
Agricultural interests will probably receive less than half their contract allocation this year even though supply is relatively stable, he said. The shortfall is the result of new diversions to support fish and wildlife, he said. Peltier said he thinks California must look at building new water storage projects such as Auburn dam.
Aiken said that with the dual threat of power and water, it may be time for a new federal analysis on the feasibility of Auburn dam. Those uses haven't been reviewed since 1987.
Power is especially nebulous, in part because it is unclear how much could be produced at the dam and at what price.
As originally authorized in 1965, the dam was planned for a generating capacity of about 300 megawatts. When the Sacramento Municipal Utility District looked at the numbers in 1992, it saw a bad deal for consumers. According to SMUD's report, power from the project would be two to three times as expensive as power from other new generating plants.
But Aiken said any decade-old study is outdated now. He thinks new technology could result in Auburn producing 500 megawatts or more of power, enough to light much of the Sacramento area.
All this may be academic, however, because opposition to the dam is so entrenched and the cost of completing it is so high.
"This isn't going anywhere, but that doesn't mean people won't talk about it," said Ronald Stork of Friends of the River, a leading advocate of a free-flowing river.
Steve Ellis, water projects director for Taxpayers for Common Sense that helped engineer the dam's recent losses in Congress, said there is no shift in the fundamental opposition in Congress to what he characterized as "the dam that won't die."
"This is the third or fourth life for Auburn," he said. "I don't know what crisis will be next that they try to justify the project on. But as long as Representative Doolittle is still around, I think the threat of Auburn will still be around."
-- Swissrose (email@example.com), March 05, 2001