Long-delayed project now needs new state OK for American River water storage

State cancels Auburn dam water rights

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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SACRAMENTO – The State Water Resources Control Board revoked U.S. Bureau of Reclamation water rights permits Tuesday for the long-delayed Auburn dam project. In a 5-0 vote, the state board added another strong reason not to build a multi-billion-dollar dam project that has been inactive for several years, a dam opponent said. Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said that there would be no way the bureau would have been able to get an extension on its 38-year-old permit to divert water off the north fork of the American river without new, extensive environmental studies based on modern-day attitudes, policies and laws. With the vote, the water reserved since 1970 for a 2.2-million-acre-foot storage and flood-control structure is available for potential use by other jurisdictions, with San Joaquin and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District already filing applications. “Auburn dam was already dead,” Jennings said. “This is a nail in the coffin of a dream.” Tim Woodall, president of Auburn’s Protect American River Canyons, said that while the board decision was gratifying, it wasn’t a surprise. The state water board’s decision was based on a staff analysis, which concludes that the bureau had not acted diligently on the permit to build a dam since work stopped in 1975. That lengthy delay amounted to “cold storage” of water rights to the detriment of other jurisdictions that were in a position to proceed, a prosecution team led by Division of Water Rights’ David Rose said. Woodall said that once a water-right permit is issued, California law requires the permit holder to act promptly to construct the project the permit was issued for. “While it became increasingly apparent over the years that Auburn dam was an obsolete project that would never be revived, there were some die-hard dam supporters who refused to accept that reality,” Woodall said. “This decision ends the debate, because without the permits, there is no project.” Auburn’s Gary Estes, who has fought the dam as a PARC member for nearly 20 years, told the board before the vote that the political will on the part of the federal government to build the dam has long been absent. Between 1983 and 1998, 12 bills were introduced in Washington, D.C. to authorize the dam or move it forward, with none passing, Estes said. “Revocation is well overdue and on time,” Estes said. Unlike many hearings involving the dam over the past three decades, Tuesday’s was relatively sedate, with about 50 people attending the session and emotions never bubbling over. One of the speakers to call for water rights to stay in place, California Farm Bureau water resources director Danny Merkley said his organization believes the dam is critical for flood protection and consistent supply for water deliveries as well as storage. “This is no time to limit our options,” Merkley said. Alexandra Snyder, a staff member representing 3rd District U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, called on the board to postpone the vote until early in 2009 to provide congressional oversight during a time when the state is undergoing drought conditions. She said it would be questionable to exclude the Auburn dam in the future. The board started its revocation action earlier this year and held a day-long public hearing in July. The bureau issued objections to the revocation in writing but sent no speaker to Tuesday’s meeting. Rose’s Water Rights Division team concluded that the issue wasn’t whether the dam project itself should be approved. “Revoking the water right permits will not necessarily foreclose the possibility of constructing the project,” he said. “If Congress ever re-authorizes the project, Reclamation could file new water right applications.” Even if the permits were not revoked, the bureau would have to obtain a time extension from the board – a process that “would be substantially the same” as applying for a new permit, Rose said. Ron Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River, described the decision as important both “substantively and symbolically.” “First of all, they don’t have a permit now,” Stork said. “It’s the state of California saying you don’t have permission to build an Auburn dam. That’s the closing of a chapter.” The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at