Auburn Dam is the public works equivalent of a Hollywood zombie, rivaling any Tinseltown creation in its ability to withstand repeated attempts to kill it. First proposed nearly a half-century ago for a site in the American River canyon near the Gold Rush town of Auburn, the dam has withstood attacks by U.S. presidents, member of Congress, state and federal agencies, environmentalists, tax watchdogs, scientists, engineers and even nature itself — the political equivalent of being shot, stabbed, drowned, poisoned, electrocuted and set on fire.
But thanks to the dogged efforts of the area's congressman, Granite Bay Republican John Doolittle, the corpse is twitching again.
Last summer and fall, after Hurricane Katrina walloped the Gulf Coast, lawmakers raced to capitalize on the attention-grabbing disaster, pointing to eerie parallels between sodden New Orleans and the flood-menaced region at the heart of California: the low-lying bowl occupied by Sacramento, its expanding ring of suburbs, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The strategy was effective. California received long-sought appropriations to bolster its levee system and increase capacity at Folsom Dam, Sacramento's primary bulwark against inundation.
But local lawmakers wanted more than money for widely supported improvements to existing flood-protection systems. Doolittle, a senior member of the House Appropriation Committee's water and energy subcommittee, also stuck $4 million for Auburn Dam studies into the $30 billion budget bill intended to fund the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) for the fiscal year beginning October 1.
Most of the earmarked money — $3 million — would be used to update a 1996 feasibility study of the dam. The other $1 million would pay for a study of the relocation of Highway 49, which would be inundated by the Auburn Dam reservoir. The money won House approval, and it also was included in the version of the COE/USBR budget bill approved June 29 by the Senate Appropriations Committee, although Sen. Dianne Feinstein inserted a provision preventing that money from being spent until completion of an updated cost-benefit analysis of the dam that Doolittle requested last year. That update expected by the end of this month.
The news that Auburn Dam is showing new signs of life drew a melodramatic reaction from Jonas Minton, water policy adviser for the Planning and Conservation League, who responded with a curse and a scream of mock horror when a reporter called. His reaction was typical of dam opponents who have been battling what one group, Protect American River Canyons, refers to as "Doolittle's tiresome obsession" for a generation.
The saga began during the 1950s with construction of Folsom Dam, which was designed to protect Sacramento from the magnitude of storm that statistically could be expected to occur only once every 250 years. Floods in 1955, 1963 and 1965, however, demonstrated that the hydrologists' estimates of potential runoff had been far too low. Folsom Dam, the flood experts decided, provided protection only from a 120-year storm. Subsequent flooding prompted them to lower that estimate still further, to a 78-year storm.
To many Sacramento-area politicians, business owners and community leaders, the solution to the city's watery woes was not to prohibit floodplain development but to build another dam just upstream from Folsom. At the behest of local representatives, Congress authorized Auburn Dam in 1965 on the Middle Fork of the American River. Work began in 1967, but nature interfered before construction had proceeded beyond preliminary site preparation.
In 1975, an earthquake struck about 45 miles away near Oroville Dam. At magnitude 5.7, the quake was far more powerful than Auburn Dam had been designed to withstand, and it occurred on a fault system geologists suspected might be related to one that ran directly beneath the Auburn Dam site. Work halted and never resumed, although Doolittle has repeatedly tried to have Congress reauthorize it.
Opponents have battled the dam tenaciously since the 1970s, seizing on its dubious economics — studies have demonstrated that the water and flood protection it would offer can be provided far more cheaply through other means — the environmental damage from drowning wildlife habitat, and the recreational opportunities eliminated by inundating 40 miles of river canyon popular with rafters, kayakers, equestrians and runners. Opponents have also argued that the seismic risk is too great.
"It is just plain irresponsible to propose building the sixth-highest dam in the United States in an active fault zone right above a major population center," hydrologist Tony Finnerty and UC Davis professor Jimmy Sparrow wrote in a recent essay for the Sacramento News & Review. They warned that the seismic failure of Auburn Dam would unleash a torrent that would also collapse Folsom Dam and send a wall of water 100 feet high washing over Sacramento.
Four years ago, apparently surrendering to political reality, the USBR began working to restore the river through the Auburn Dam site, construct a permanent pumping plant to replace water that local agencies had been promised from the never-completed reservoir, and to block a diversion tunnel carrying the river around the dam site.
But neither criticism nor the apparent lack of interest by the USBR has daunted Doolittle, who's been championing the dam for more than two decades. He says it offers the best chance to protect Sacramento and its suburbs from flooding, secure adequate water for the region, and help meet the state's growing demand for electricity.
"Without an Auburn Dam we could soon be in the unenviable position of suffering from both severe drought and severe flooding in the very same year," Doolittle wrote in an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee.
Ultimately, money may prove the deciding factor. With construction estimates running as high as $5 billion and USBR able to pick up only 65% of the tab, the local share required before construction could start would be substantial.
The American River Authority, an obscure joint-powers agency, has discussed becoming a local sponsor of the project, although it has a minuscule budget and no apparent source of additional financing. A booster organization known as the Auburn Dam Council has proposed creating a regional Auburn Dam Authority encompassing Placer, El Dorado, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Yolo counties, and issuing revenue bonds financed by the sale of water and power. But with the cost of such water estimated at more than $1,000 an acre-foot — twice the going rate — it is unclear who would buy.
Still, as they say in the horror movies, "It is alive."
Rep. John Doolittle, (202) 225-2511.
Auburn Dam Council, (916) 967-6197.
Protect American River Canyons: www.parc-auburn.org