California faces major decision on dams

Published 30 September 2009

California already has upward of 1,000 dams that provide water supply, flood control, and hydropower, but California growing water shortages; last month Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger insisted he would not sign off on any major overhaul of the water system without money for new dams and reservoirs

Thirty years ago, a chunk of chain, an eyebolt and Mark Dubois helped end the era of big dam building in California. Dubois, a bearded, 6-foot-8, 30-year-old river guide from Sacramento, chained himself to a rocky outcropping on the north bank of the Stanislaus River and stayed there for a week, determined to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from filling the canyons behind New Melones Dam and submerging the limestone caves, verdant meadows and petroglyphs of the river valley.

San Francisco Chronicle’s Kelly Zito reports that Dubois lost that fight: New Melones had been approved in the 1940s and was well under way when he and the nascent Friends of the River got involved. He and hundreds of others who celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Stanislaus Campaign next month believe, however, that their work is echoing through a new generation as another dam debate emerges in California.

We didn’t win 30 years ago, but the world has changed,” Dubois told Zito in a telephone interview from his home on Bainbridge Island in Washington state. “Even though (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) is pushing these dams, people know they don’t make sense.”

As California grapples with an aging water-delivery network, growing population, worsening water quality, a drought and the potentially far-reaching effects of global climate change, dams are again on the table.

Last month Schwarzenegger insisted he would not sign off on any major overhaul of the water system without money for new dams and reservoirs.

The governor has the support of conservatives and the vast Central Valley, where many farmers are convinced that new, man-made lakes will help offset dry spells and ease the federal rulings that have cut water pumped through the ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

A costly option
Environmentalists and their liberal backers contend dams are a costly, ecologically dicey option set against the backdrop of California’s unprecedented budget cuts and alarms over the decline of fisheries, waterways and water quality.

By most accounts, New Melones was not the boon promised. When federal engineers studied the project, they far overestimated the water supply and underestimated demand. As a result, for years much of the water has gone to flush out the delta and to fulfill contracts in Stockton and elsewhere; little went to local water suppliers.

It wasn’t surprising to us at all,” said Steve Evans, conservation director at Friends of the River. “New Melones was a project looking for a purpose.”

Memories die hard