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Auburn Dam: Better solution than Delta canal

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POSTED December 9, 2009 2:40 a.m.
California has a growing water problem.

The Golden State is now in the middle of its third drought since 1976.

The state’s population is expected to boom from 38 million to 48 million by the year 2025.

 The 806-page California Water Plan report released in 1998 noted the state already has an annual shortfall of 1.6 million acre feet of water. California imports this shortfall from out-of-state sources.

By 2025, the shortfall will expand to 2.9 million acre feet. This is not good news. Southern California is already using Colorado River water that - under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling — isn’t a sure bet. Upstream users have a higher priority under the court’s decision.

 As water demands grow in Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, California will lose a portion of Colorado River water currently used in the south state.

The California Department of Resources has offered three potential solutions — the political snake pit known as the Peripheral Canal, the long-stalled Auburn Dam, and raising the height of the Shasta Dam.

The Peripheral Canal has long been the darling of Southern California metro water interests and the huge corporate agricultural interest in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Everyone in urban water planning looks at the amount of fresh water flowing into the Bay as a waste. Many farming interests share that position while environmentalists view any attempt to further stem the flow of fresh water as having the same impact on the Bay-Delta environment as dropping the atomic bomb had on Hiroshima.

Save the water from flowing into the Bay. It is a dangerously simplistic solution. There are court mandates regarding salinity levels not to mention the protection order for the Delta Smelt. Salt intrusion has to be kept below a certain level or else the federal government hijacks fresh water to add to the flows flushing the Delta.

 If the Peripheral Canal takes Sacramento River water headed for Southern California and bypasses the Delta that leaves only the San Joaquin River system to make up for any shortfalls of fresh water. The most likely target for cleansing the Delta is the New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River.

Raising the height of Shasta Dam is fraught with environmental concerns as is building the Auburn Dam.

The Auburn Dam, though, can add the most storage and effectively handle one of the heaviest precipitation watersheds on the western slope of the Sierra. The reservoir could hold 2.1 million-acre feet — almost enough to meet statewide water shortfalls projected for 2025.

 The dam site already has had trees and vegetation removed and other improvements such as a foundation and bridges put in place. After hippies were unable to stop the dam from flooding a nude beach, the earth rumbled in 1972 to effectively stop Congress from authorizing the money for actual construction until seismic safety issues were studied further.

The Auburn Dam — operated in tandem with Hell Hole, French Meadows and Folsom Dam reservoirs — offers a powerful one-two-three-four punch of expanding water storage and management for growing south state urban needs as well as enhancing flood protection.

 The Shasta Dam proposal only increases storage and only by half the amount of Auburn Dam. The Peripheral Canal simply assures Southern California clean water at the expense of the San Joaquin Valley and Delta farmers.

Experts believe California is close to maximizing practical water conservation. Farmers have already implemented more efficient irrigation programs while urban users are reducing household consumption when it comes to water needed for landscaping and even flushing toilets.

We need more water for our growing cities, industries and agriculture. If steps aren’t taken now, it will come down to a health and safety issue. Water could be taken from agricultural users. It wouldn’t, though, be a once in a while “borrowing.” It would be permanent. This would prompt farmers to put even more pressure on underground water sources already showing signs of serious overdrafting or else may force land to go fallow.

When other states take their rightful claim to Colorado River water, Southern California will start looking north.

 The winner in a north versus south battle with health and safety issues at stake isn’t likely to be anyone north of the Tehachapi Mountains. Nor are the odds good that an “emergency solution” would bode well in the long run even for urban interests.

 Auburn Dam would be the last major piece of the run-off precipitation puzzle to be put in place. After that desalinization is the only real option once storage and conservation measures have been exhausted.
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