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Cost of Reviving Calif. Dam Project Soars Toward $10B

Sat March 17, 2007 - West Edition

SACRAMENTO (AP) Reviving a dam project in the Sierra foothills that was halted three decades ago would cost up to $10 billion, more than 10 times the original price tag, according to a federal report released Jan. 30.

Skyrocketing land values and increased environmental restrictions will complicate any efforts to restart construction on the dam, which drew strenuous objections from environmentalists when it was proposed in a scenic canyon of the American River approximately 40 mi. northeast of Sacramento.

The report by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation provides a mixed assessment of the Auburn Dam.

It underscored increased benefits for flood control, cheap hydroelectric power and increased water supplies. But the bureau also raised questions about the high cost of obtaining land that would be inundated by the new reservoir, as well as shortages of skilled labor and building materials.

The report was based on a 1978 design for the project which called for a 685-ft. (209 m) high concrete dam. The analysis of the dam’s benefits and costs would change with new design studies that would be required if it went forward, said Mike Finnegan, area manager for the bureau’s Sacramento office.

“The information provided in the report is not sufficient to make a final decision on the dam,” Finnegan said. “More additional study is necessary in order to reach any objective conclusions of what the actual costs are.”

Congress approved construction of the Auburn Dam in the 1960s as a way to provide more water to farmers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. But a 5.7-magnitude earthquake in 1975 near Lake Oroville north of Sacramento revealed a fault line that ran under the dam and caused scientists to become concerned about its safety.

Work ended despite subsequent efforts by engineers to redesign the dam. At the time, the discovery of the fault beneath the site boosted costs to approximately $1 billion in 1980 dollars, Finnegan said.

Scars along the river canyon in the former Gold Rush-era town remain visible from the initial construction efforts.

The project has been a lightning rod for controversy for more than 30 years, dividing Republicans and Democrats, local and state leaders, and environmentalists and farmers.

“This is going to cost a lot more than anybody ever thought,” said Ron Stork, senior policy advocate of Friends of the River in Sacramento, an environmental group that opposes the dam. “It’s a huge idea with not a lot of water in it.”

If the Auburn Dam were ever built, the reservoir behind it would be relatively small. Its dam would release only approximately 13 percent as much water as that released by Folsom Dam further downstream, Stork said. It would account for less than 1 percent of California’s developed water supplies, he said.

Republican lawmakers in Congress have championed the Auburn Dam as critical to protecting the state’s capital region against catastrophic flooding. Work under way to raise the height of Folsom Dam, which is downriver from the proposed Auburn site, is designed to double the Sacramento region’s flood protection.

Democrats and officials at the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency have said the improvements to Folsom Dam and ongoing work to strengthen the region’s levees will give the city sufficient flood protection. The improvements to Folsom Dam, which include another spillway to release more water, are expected to begin this fall and finish by 2014.

Rep. John Doolittle, one of Auburn Dam’s most ardent supporters, said he believes Sacramento needs even greater flood protection and will continue efforts to secure funding for the project.

Depending on the design, the dam could provide protection against all but the most massive floods — those that might occur only once every 500 years, he said.

“We are doing ourselves a great disservice if we stop with the Folsom Dam improvements,” Doolittle, R-Rocklin, said, adding that Sacramento was close to flooding in 1986 and 1997. “I don’t think we want to roll the dice.”

He also said he was not deterred by the soaring price, saying Auburn Dam would pay for itself through the sale of hydropower.

Any costs to build the dam would be outweighed by the billions of dollars needed to recover if a catastrophic flood struck the capital, said Anthony Pescetti, president of the Auburn Dam Council, a citizens group supporting the project. Such a flood would be especially devastating because of the population growth since the dam was first proposed.

“How do you put a dollar figure on life and property?” said Pescetti, a former state assemblyman. “I would think in light of what we saw in Katrina and the risk the region faces, it opens the dialogue.”

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has not taken a formal stance on the dam but has always had concerns, Spokesman Scott Gerber said. A study by her office found that it would provide up to $240 million in benefits for irrigation, urban water use, hydropower and flood prevention.

“It’s hard to foresee how this dam would be cost-effective,” Gerber said.

Whether a dam at the Auburn site could be made seismically safe is still an open question. Congress did not ask the bureau to study that issue.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, favors flood-control initiatives other than construction of the Auburn Dam, the congresswoman’s chief of staff, Joe Trahern, said in a statement.

“The bottom line is she has always believed the debate over Auburn Dam was a debate that looked to the past,” Trahern said. “She’s continuing to look to the future — meaningful and achievable protection for her constituents along both the American and Sacramento rivers.”

The Bureau of Reclamation’s report comes as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other California officials are considering whether the state needs more reservoirs to address the changes wrought by global warming. He has not taken a position on the Auburn dam, a spokesman said.

“The governor is focused on a broad strategy that addresses water supply and flood prevention,” Schwarzenegger spokesman Bill Maile said. “The Auburn dam is not part of the governor’s infrastructure plan.”

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