Backers up Garden Bar dam ante, raising new concerns

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A new study showing a potentially even larger dam than originally envisioned on the Bear River near Auburn is creating a new round of concerns from land preservation groups. Both the Placer Land Trust and Nevada County Land Trust have preserved agricultural land that apparently would be affected by construction of a Garden Bar dam. Leaders with both organizations are expressing fears that some of the land they have preserved through agricultural and other easements would be appropriated to provide the space needed for reservoir storage could range from 245,000 acre-feet to 400,000 acre-feet. That could provide up to 150,000 acre-feet of annual water supply. The new dam is being studied by Sutter County’s South Sutter Water District but Marty Coleman-Hunt, Nevada County Land Trust executive director, said it’s important to understand that the funding for the $1 million preliminary study completed earlier this month came mostly from three Southern California water districts. Those districts – Castaic Lake Water Agency, San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District and Palmdale Water District – contributed a total of 60 percent of the cost, according to district figures. The other 40 percent was shouldered by two North Bay districts – the City of American Canyon, located 35 miles northeast of San Francisco and the city of Napa – and South Sutter. American Canyon and Napa shared a 20 percent stake while South Sutter funded the remainder. Coleman-Hunt said the dam’s design would be based on water-supply needs and not recreation. “We’re not anti-dam,” Coleman-Hunt said. “This is just a bad idea – from the standpoint of flooding the area and reducing habitat and from a standpoint of not providing any benefit for the local community. So everybody here loses.” The South Sutter Water District presented its preliminary study last week to the Placer County Water Agency and plans to also bring it to the Nevada Irrigation District Board. The district outlined plans a year ago that envisioned a dam that could produce 100,000 acre-feet of new water and cost about $300 million. The feasibility study has upped the ante to as much as 150,000 acre-feet of new water supply and an estimated cost of between $415 million and $674 million. Tom Cuquet, president of the South Sutter board, said the partnership with other districts is a necessity on a project that has roots going back to the mid-20th century. “We have a long-held and well-known interest in developing Garden Bar water to reduce over-drafting of our limited groundwater resources,” Cuquet said. “To date, cost has been a primary obstacle to project development. We cannot fund it alone.” The Garden Bar preliminary study shows a planning timeline extending for eight more years and then construction from 2019 to 2022. Consultant Lyndel Melton of RMC Water & Environment in Walnut Creek told agency directors that additional partners are being sought as the district works to confirm its existing partners wish to continue. Development of a specific project description would occupy the next round of project funding. It is also raising the resolve of groups like the Placer Land Trust and Nevada County based Sierra Watch, who are warily eyeing a dam that could be six times the size of the Rollins Reservoir nearby. Jeff Darlington, Placer Land Trust executive director, said that since the project was initially presented publicly last summer, $9.5 million in public and state funding has been spent to preserve the Bruin Ranch land, which could be affected by the dam. “I don’t think it’s going to find much local support,” Darlington said. “And decisions are all being made out of the area. That’s not a good sign.” *Updated to reflect a change in percentages for contributions to preliminary study.