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Amid water grab fears, South Sutter cautions dam on Bear River still a concept

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A $300 million dam on the Bear River near Auburn with a quarter the water storage of Folsom Lake is being seen as a potential answer to future water supply uncertainty for the small, rural South Sutter Water District. But the uncertainty about a dam and where the water will flow to is also creating concerns that were expressed today at a meeting of the Nevada Irrigation District board. The South Sutter district supplies raw water to rice farmers. The water flows from Placer County’s Camp Far West Reservoir, which would sit downstream from a new dam. Lyndel Melton, a consultant with RMC Water and Environment, told a quizzical Nevada Irrigation District board that the new dam could produce 100,000 acre-feet of new water for the district – with much of it coming from water that the downstream Camp Far West Reservoir now spills. “Water going over the spillway is potentially available because no one has laid claim to it,” Melton said. “We’re trying to determine how much water would be available.” No decisions have been made on moving forward with a dam, he said. “No one’s proposing anything just yet,” Melton said. “And there aren’t a lot of answers yet on whether this is a project.” The possibility of a dam on rolling rangeland now straddling both sides of the Bear River in Placer and Nevada counties has drawn the attention of conservationists fearing destruction of natural habitat and other locals concerned about the impact of uncertainty on land prices. “I consider this a classic water grab,” said Virginia Moran, a Grass Valley ecological consultant. Al Eberhart, another speaker, said that the combine of Southern California and Napa County water districts put in $200,000 each for a study that has “put a cloud over” decisions on properties in the vicinity of the Garden Bar site. “It’s important for South Sutter to understand the impact up here on property values and what people are trying to accomplish here,” Eberhart said. “It’s a reality.” Some of the land in what would be the dam take area is already part of the Placer Land Trust’s 912-acre Garden Bar Preserve. In Nevada County, the Nevada County Land Trust has interests in 2,100 acres directly affected by a Bear River dam. Melton said the timeline on what he called a reconnaissance study was to have a completed report before the South Sutter board by the end of the year. At that point the board would decide whether to continue to pursue the idea. One of the keys will be to determine how much water would be available for a dam that Melton told the board would possibly cost around $300 million. The session was more of a Q&A than a confrontation, with Weber advising the irrigation district board that he didn’t yet have all the answers. And while South Sutter is working with other water districts – most notably Palmdale and San Bernardino in Southern California to fund the study – Weber said that water rights would remain with the rural, rice-growing district. Weber also suggested that there still may be an opportunity for the Nevada Irrigation District to work with South Sutter on the project, but not as the lead agency. “It would be an option on the table,” Weber said, noting that Nevada Irrigation District has been selling water to South Sutter for 15 years.