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R.I.P., Auburn Dam

July 27, 2002

The 700-foot-high Auburn Dam on the American River 35 miles northeast of Sacramento was to be the capstone of the golden age of big federal water projects that began with Hoover Dam in the 1930s.

Authorized by Congress in 1965, Auburn had a modernist design, an elegant, thin curved-arch structure that would store the American's waters and send them via a new canal down the east side of the San Joaquin Valley to irrigate the row crops and orchards.

Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation diverted the river through a 35-foot-wide tunnel not far downstream from where gold was discovered in 1848. The water thus flowed around the dam site, keeping it dry for the construction to follow. Once the dam was finished, the tunnel would be closed and the dam would begin to fill.

But for a variety of reasons, the dam--always controversial--was never built. And this fall, the bureau will shut the diversion tunnel and return the American to its natural channel. The act will restore seven miles of fine white-water rafting stream and ought to end any prospect that the dam will be built. R.I.P., Auburn Dam.

It was never economically justified and was authorized by Congress mostly because it was the pet project of the local congressman, the late Democratic Rep. Harold T. "Bizz" Johnson of Roseville. The river should have been restored years ago.

But the idea of Auburn will not rest in peace as long as Rep. John T. Doolittle of Rocklin, a conservative Republican and a successor to Johnson, remains in Congress. Auburn Dam is Doolittle's passion; he says it is essential if Sacramento is to be spared a catastrophic flood one day.

It's Doolittle against everyone else. Other members of Congress in the region, the Corps of Engineers, the local flood control district and city, state and county officials all support a $219-million plan to raise Folsom Dam, just upstream from Sacramento, by 7 feet and to bolster the American River levee system through Sacramento.

But if Doolittle can't have Auburn Dam, he won't let Sacramento have reasonable protection against flooding. He has talked Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) of the House Transportation Committee into blocking the Folsom-levee project. This is a dangerous course.

Congress has repeatedly rejected revival of Auburn Dam, even a smaller structure to be built solely for flood control. Construction was halted in 1975 when scientists discovered the proposed dam was on an active earthquake fault system. This necessitated a redesign of the dam so that its concrete base would be 400 feet thick, raising the cost to more than $1 billion. During the delay, opposition mounted from environmental groups and taxpayer associations. The project was abandoned in 1977.

Auburn Dam from its inception was a white elephant in modernist disguise, a remnant of a different era. Today we celebrate another stretch of river that soon will run free.

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