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U.S. Decision Is Apparent Death Knell for Auburn Dam Project

Environment: Move to abandon tunnel that diverted water from American River could be final chapter in bitter conflict.


In possibly the final chapter of one of the state's longest and most bitter water battles, the federal government has bowed to state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and all but dropped plans for a massive dam on a river in Northern California.

A decision announced this week by Lester A. Snow, regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, to abandon a tunnel that diverted water from the American River, could be the death knell for the long-stalled Auburn Dam project. The plan would have provided flood control and helped send water to farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The decision is a victory for environmentalists, Democratic foes and Northern California interests that said the dam was too expensive, unduly destructive to the North Fork of the American River, and only served to encourage wasteful water use among Central Valley farmers and in sprawling Southern California.

And it is a defeat for Southern California water agencies and Republican proponents, including former Gov. Pete Wilson, who supported the Auburn Dam project, and Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin), chairman of the House subcommittee on water and power.

In terms of sparking regional anger and conflict, the Auburn Dam project was second only to the proposal for a peripheral canal to bring Northern California water into the California Aqueduct by looping around the polluted Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.

"The Auburn Dam became a symbol of the deep mistrust that Northern California and the environmentalists feel for agriculture and Southern California," said Mark Watton, a member of the governing boards of the San Diego County Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

But to environmentalists, the Auburn Dam project symbolized a discredited policy of solving the state's water needs by building dams and reservoirs and shipping ever more water from north to south rather than emphasizing conservation.

The Auburn Dam project was authorized in 1965 as a $426-million, 700-foot-tall dam about 37 miles north of Sacramento.

But congressional opposition in the 1970s called a halt to the early stages of the project. One reason was the rise of the environmental movement. Another was increased concern over earthquakes near the dam site after a 5.7 quake hit Oroville in 1975.

In 1992, the Bureau of Reclamation again submitted the project for congressional approval, this time reconfigured slightly as a flood-control project. Delays had driven the price tag to nearly $1 billion.

The House overwhelmingly voted not to fund the project, which left it in limbo.

Left behind was the half-mile tunnel diverting water from the American River. Because of potential dangers, the federal government has banned recreational enthusiasts from a five-mile stretch upstream of the tunnel.

Snow has promised to plug the tunnel and return the river to its original course. Although Snow's decision, which is supported by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, does not preclude resuming the project later, political reality suggests that the odds of that occurring are exceedingly remote.

Lockyer had threatened to sue the federal government over what he called the "needless, continuing environmental damage and impairment" to the North Fork, which serves as a watershed for Placer and El Dorado counties.

Nathan Barankin, spokesman for Lockyer, said the attorney general was thrilled that the public now will have full use of the American River.

"The tunnel was to facilitate a dam that was never built," Barankin said. "Water will now flow through the historic channel."

After decades of fighting the dam, Charles Casey, spokesman for Friends of the River, said his group and others will not be satisfied until the federal government declares the American River a "wild and scenic river," which would bar any revival of the Auburn Dam idea.

Watton said that, for the environmental movement, "the Auburn Dam can never be too dead. Even when it was pitched as a flood control project, their attitude was: We don't care if Sacramento is under 10 feet of water, we're against this dam."

Although it may have been long forgotten in Southern California, the Auburn Dam project has remained a hot political issue in Northern California.

In 1998, San Diego businessman Darrell Issa, then seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, made an offhand comment to a Sacramento audience supporting the Auburn Dam and immediately was denounced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), environmentalists and the editorial pages of Northern California newspapers.

Snow estimated that closing the tunnel and restoring the channel could cost more than $50 million and suggested that the cost be split between the federal and state government. "We believe this is the most effective way to provide for the protection of the natural resources of the North Fork of the American River," Snow wrote.

Assemblyman Mike Machado (D-Stockton), chairman of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, said the dam is, at best, "a remote possibility" after this decision.

Machado said there are now other ways to meet California's water needs, projects that do not pose earthquake risks presented by the massive Auburn Dam.

'I've always supported the Auburn Dam because it would provide water resources . . . but we have to learn to be flexible," Machado said.

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