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Farewell to Auburn Dam

July 16, 1986

The many lives of Auburn Dam, on the north fork of the American River above Sacramento, may finally come to an end next year--as they should. Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento) has proposed that Congress end its funding unless the Department of the Interior gives Congress a final, workable plan for the dam in 1987.

The Interior Department now shows little enthusiasm for the dam, conceived in the 1940s and put under construction in 1967. Work was halted after an earthquake in the region raised fears about the safety of the radical double-curved arch dam, estimated to cost more than $2 billion. The dam was redesigned, but the project has only inched forward. The Reagan Administration has proposed $1 million for Auburn in the coming year, raising to about $350 million the amount spent for preliminary and related work.

A state-federal study group is looking into alternatives to the original Auburn Dam, which was designed to be a power, irrigation and flood-control unit of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Central Valley Project. The costs range from $595 million to $824 million. In the meantime, Congress has approved legislation requiring state and local agencies to help the federal government finance such projects. An American River Authority was created more than 10 years ago, but has not yet come up with a cost-sharing proposal.

Authority officials are conferring with Fazio about a possible joint venture. Also, the Bureau of Reclamation has said that private investors are interested in joining the project, but they were not identified.

Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel has said that he is looking for a signal from Gov. George Deukmejian on whether the state wants to proceed with the project, but none has been forthcoming.

In fact, Auburn was virtually dead until this past year, when major floods struck the Sacramento area. The high water revived talk of Auburn as a flood-control facility. In its original configuration, Auburn would provide a relatively small amount of irrigation and flood-control capacity for a project of its magnitude. Its reservoir would inundate two river valleys for 35 miles. The federal government still has not been able to sell all the Central Valley Project irrigation water that it now has at its disposal, and prospects for finding new farming customers in the San Joaquin Valley are slim. Originally, Auburn water was to have been routed down the valley via the giant East Side canal, but that project has been abandoned.

Fazio's proposed legislation also calls on the U.S. Corps of Engineers to study other possible American River flood-control measures to alleviate Sacramento's flooding fears. The flood danger can certainly be met with less than a 680-foot-high, $2.2-billion Auburn Dam. So, too, can local water needs.

Even as envisioned in the dreams of its sponsors 20 years ago, Auburn never was a very viable or necessary project. Today it makes no economic or environmental sense, and should be formally abandoned.

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