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 The voice of California's rivers

The American River & The Dam That Wouldn't Die: the Battle Against Auburn Dam...39 Years and Counting.

MAY 10, 2013 - UPDATE: FOR kills Auburn dam in the Congress once again. (read the update below)

MFAmericanRiversevansThe American River: Worth More Than a Dam

Friends of the River works for rivers across California. Close to our hearts and at the center of a great deal of our work is the American River.

Since 1974 we have taken a leading role in protecting the American from the needless and wasteful Auburn dam, excessive water diversions, and hydropower operations that threaten this gem of the Sierra’s.  Working in partnership with local organizations, business, and citizens – Friends of the River has:

  • Helped block large hydroelectric dams proposed on the South Fork American River.
  • Repeatedly blocked Congressional authorization of the Auburn Dam on the North and Middle Forks of the American.
  • Won the revocation of Auburn Dam’s water rights.
  • Helped gain National Wild & Scenic protections for the North Fork American River and the Lower American River.
  • Secured interim Wild & Scenic protection for more than 164 miles of the American River and its tributaries flowing through federally managed public lands.
  • Helped block damaging small hydroelectric projects proposed on the upper South Fork American and its tributaries
  • Successfully lobbied for upgrading Folsom Dam’s spillway and operations to increase flood control for Sacramento and water storage for all
  • Fought for and won better water flows and conditions for wildlife and recreation along the lower American River
  • Convinced power companies to reduce the impacts of their dams on the American
  • Secured improved and predictable flows for stream ecosystems, fish and wildlife, and whitewater recreation on the South Fork American River 
  • Worked with local governments on smart flood policy eliminating the need for Auburn Dam’s supposed flood control benefits
  • Trained & engaged thousands of local citizen-advocates for the American
  • Supported numerous restoration projects on the American, including the restoration of the river flowing through the former Auburn Dam site
  • Actively participated in and led river cleanups from Coloma to downtown Sacramento
  • Successfully lobbied for state legislation forcing the City of Sacramento to install water meters – potentially saving more water than the Auburn Dam would capture for use
  • Coordinated the American River Coalition – to Keep the American River Free!

Join Friends of the River today… because it takes a lot of friends to save rivers and help keep us in this nearly four decade battle to Save the American - a river worth a whole lot more than any dam!


MAY 10, 2013 - UPDATE: FOR kills Auburn dam in the Congress once again. 

This time it was from bad drafting, but the fact remains, we killed Auburn dam once again.

The story is a strange one. Senator Boxer’s Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) unanimously adopted a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA 2013) in late March.  It contained some excellent language addressing the Corps’ War on Nature crusade against levee trees.  We reported that in our March 29th River Advocate, along with noting “streamlining” provisions for Corps project planning that had drawn the ire of nearly every environmental group in the country, including Friends of the River.

WRDAs are very large bills, and it takes time to plow through them.  Friends of the River is in regular communication with some of the key groups that work on WRDA, our attention was getting focused on Section 1002 of WRDA and whether it would authorize long-dead projects such as Auburn dam in a clumsy attempt to get around the earmarks ban.

What appeared to be a key feature of Section 1002: authorize anything the Corps said was ready.    So we sent out a River Advocate on April 25th alerting recipients that the EPW WRDA 2013 would authorize Auburn dam and who knows what else.  Shortly after that, we composed a letter to EPW highlighting the problem with Section 1002 and proposing alternate bill language.  On Thursday of last week we learned that the guts of our language had been incorporated and we were asked to stand down our Auburn dam fight with WRDA.  We were happy to do so and did---although we had to take their assurances on trust: we did not have the language.

Yesterday, as the WRDA went to the floor, we finally got the language.  They had described it accurately.  They had adopted our legislative approach. Auburn dam was in the dust bin once again.  WRDA is up on the floor all week.  It is still unclear what will happen on “streamlining” or the WRDA in general,  but our “War on Nature” language is in the bill, and Auburn dam is out.  Not bad work.

The story is illustrative.  You’ve got to pay attention to the Congress and the legislature.  There are folks there who don’t have good intent, and even your friends can hurt you. So pay attention and be effective when you engage.  And having a history of engagement generally means that you get listened to when you engage.  We did, and we got results.

Of course in two weeks the Auburn Dam Council will be hosting a gala event kicking off a renewed Auburn-dam campaign with Rep. Tom McClintock as the featured speaker.  The last time this happened (in 1995 with Rep. Doolittle), we had some pretty rough going for a few years.  We’ll see what happens this time.  But we will engage.


Auburn Dam sketchTHE ARGUMENTS:

If we had built Auburn dam, would it be raining?

It is a popular misconception that if we build more dams, we will have more water in dry years - that is not necessarily the case.  Dams don't create water, they simply capture the run-off from rain and snow.  If we don't receive much rain or snow, then there will be little water behind the dams, no matter how many we may build (as evident by the many unfilled reservoirs around our state).  Congressman McClintock wants to bring more water security to his district, but more dams are not the answer

If the Auburn Dam existed today, it’s reservoir, after three hard years of drought, would be as empty as the ones behind Shasta, Oroville, Folsom, and the state’s other major reservoirs. These projects deliver most of their water to agri-business in the San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Basin, not Folsom or any other local community. On average, the Bureau of Reclamation believes that it could deliver about 200,000 acre feet per year, approximately one eighth the existing average yield of the dams and pumping operations associated with the American River, and a tiny fraction of the statewide use of 35 to 40 million acre feet per year.  It’s the old law of diminishing returns: when you’ve already squeezed a lot of water out of a watershed, there isn’t a lot of water left to be gained by building more dams on it — no matter how big and expensive they are.

Dams cost too much moneyCost vs. Benefit

Cost?  Representative McClintock's political career has always focused on cutting government spending and being fiscally conservative.  That is why we are confused about his position in favor of building Auburn Dam.  It is well known that the building of Auburn Dam will be very expensive and would store little water except in very wet years.  In fact, in the last two years the estimated cost of Auburn Dam was between $6 and $10 billion and if it were built,...

Benefit?  ...none of Rep. McClintock's constituents would see any benefits.  Auburn Dam would provide little flood control; water would be diverted to the corporate farms of the Central Valley and to the urban areas of Southern California; and the weight of the water stored behind the reservoir could cause earthquakes. 

It was President Reagan who changed the rules to require those that benefit to pay the costs of a new dam - and none of the possible beneficiaries have stepped up and offered to pay because they realize that the project wouldn't really work.

California floodAuburn Dam vs. Sacramento's flood protection

The multipurpose Auburn dam that was authorized by the Congress in 1965 was designed to control a flood of the SPF magnitude, a storm with an inflow into Folsom Dam of 460,000 cfs  or the largest runoff expected for the watershed.   Record peak inflows do not exceed 300,000 cfs.   The peak of the design flood hydrograph of the Folsom Dam Joint Federal Project is expected to exceed 470,000 cfs.  The peak of the design flood of the Folsom Dam Joint Federal Project is expected to exceed 500,000 cfs when forecast-based pre-release operational plans are created for the new spillways.

So Auburn Dam provides no increase in Sacramento's flood protection. Read our full and footnoted analysis. 

See a chart of the historic flood flows on the American River.



Revoked - Water Rights to build the Auburn Dam

December 2, 2008 - The California State Water Board voted unanimously to revoke the Bureau of Reclamation’s water rights to build the auburn dam. The Order cited California’s tough “use it or lose it” water rights policy, in which the Water Board noted that the Bureau failed to construct the project and apply water to beneficial use with due diligence as required by state law.

This is a great victory for millions of people who utilize this river every year. Hopefully, this action closes a chapter on the 35 year effort to build one of California’s most useless and most expensive dam projects ever conceived. Auburn dam is without purpose, without funding, and now without water.

While this ruling does not completely eliminate the possibility of an Auburn Dam, it is another nail in the coffin, the dam's backers are certainly going to have to do a lot more work to bring the dam back to life. To read more, click here.



American River


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