Politics & Government

Debate dams up state lawmakers

SACRAMENTO -- From the minute Gov. Schwarzenegger called a special session on water, it was clear what the sticking point would be.

Dams. Republicans say the state needs more. Democrats aren't convinced. More than two weeks into the session, lawmakers have yet to find common ground.

Schwarzenegger's $9 billion plan puts an emphasis on three new dams -- including one near Fresno. Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata's $5 billion proposal frees local water agencies to spend money how they see fit.

Assembly Democrats also have a plan. It is short on details but discourages using state money for dams, by stating that local users bear "the strong majority" of water project costs.

The dam debate is expected to pick up in coming days, as lawmakers near an Oct. 16 deadline to place a water bond on the Feb. 5 ballot.

Here's a closer look:

Q: Does the state need more dams?

A: Depends on whom you ask. Farmers, developers and some municipal leaders say that dams are the best way to increase the state's water supply. Water that now flows to the ocean could be captured to serve the state's growing population. Supporters also tout other benefits, such as protecting communities from flooding and stabilizing river flows to aid fish.

Environmentalists say dams are too expensive and take too long to build -- more than a decade in most cases. Because most of the good sites have been taken, new reservoirs might only fill up in really wet years, they say. They also note that studies on proposed dams haven't been completed. Also, dams would impede the natural flow of rivers, harming surrounding habitat that relies on rivers changing course every so often, opponents say.

Q: How much water could be stored at the new dams?

A: The three dams proposed by the Schwarzenegger administration would increase the state's storage capacity by 3.3 million acre-feet. They wouldn't fill every year, so water supplies would be boosted by a far smaller amount each year -- by up to 1 million acre-feet, according to estimates. For perspective, each acre foot is enough to meet the annual water needs of one to two average California families.

Q: Where would the dams be built?

A: The Schwarzenegger administration favors three sites.

One site is northeast of Fresno in the Sierra foothills in an area known as Temperance Flat. San Joaquin River water would be captured in the new reservoir, above Millerton Lake.

A second site, known as Sites Reservoir, is on the west side of the Sacramento Valley in Colusa County. Water would be piped from the Sacramento River and deposited 16 miles away in a new reservoir.

The third project is an expansion of the Los Vaqueros Reservoir, located about 11 miles north of Livermore in Contra Costa County. Built by the Contra Costa Water District, the reservoir is filled with water pumped from the delta in the spring, when the delta is less salty. The expansion would more than double the reservoir's size.

Q: How much would the dams cost and who would pay?

A: The three dams would cost a combined $10.3 billion. Under Schwarzenegger's proposal, voters would be asked to approve $5.1 billion in state bonds to help pay for the projects.

But here is where it gets tricky. The bond money could only be used to pay for the portion of the project deemed to have a statewide "public benefit." Examples include increased flood protection or new water supplies to aid fisheries.

Remaining costs would be picked up by water agencies and other local groups that would benefit from the new water. Voters would be asked to approve the bond before any local financing is secured, but the state would not spend the money until local agencies commit to paying their fair share.

The plan does not spell out how to determine the "public benefit" portion. The final amount would likely be challenged by environmentalists and others opposed to using state money for dams -- a process that could possibly tie up the projects for years.Q: Would local users be willing to pay their share?

A: Environmentalists say if the dams were needed, users would find a way to pay for them on their own. Under Schwarzenegger's plan, the state could pick up as much as half the tab of the three new dams. Democrats say that's way too much. They point to recent water storage projects -- such as Diamond Valley Lake in Southern California -- that were paid for entirely by local users.

But administration officials say the three proposed dams have a statewide benefit. For instance, newly stored water could be sent across the state, so everyone could benefit, officials say.

Q: But wouldn't each new dam have specific local benefits?

A: Yes. A new dam at Temperance Flat would bring a new water supply to east San Joaquin Valley farmers who irrigate with San Joaquin River water. Also, the city of Fresno would likely gain water. The city now gets 20% to 40% of its annual supply from the San Joaquin River.

Temperance Flat supporters say the river's major reservoir, Millerton Lake, was built too small. Farmers fear that their situation will get even worse as a result of an environmental lawsuit calling for more water to be released from the dam to restore the river, which runs dry at several spots downstream.

As for Sites Reservoir, state officials mostly tout environmental and water management benefits. For instance, by increasing statewide storage by putting water in Sites, more colder water could be kept in Shasta Lake, which could be released into the Sacramento River to aid spawning salmon, officials say.

Water from Los Vaqueros is now used by customers of the Contra Costa Water District. The district also has the ability to send water to other Bay Area users. State officials also say a bigger reservoir could store water for fisheries and wildlife refuges in the San Joaquin Valley.

Q: Aren't there problems with each dam proposal?

A: None is perfect and environmentalists say each one has major issues. A dam at Temperance Flat would drown hydroelectric power plants upstream and flood the San Joaquin Valley River Gorge, home to animals and plants, opponents say.

There also is a debate on how often a new reservoir would fill up. The average yield would be 208,000 acre feet of water, well under the 1.3 million acre-feet capacity. Dam supporters say the dam would fill in wet years. But only Mother Nature really knows how often that would occur.

In the past 15 years, the reservoir could have filled seven times, according to operators of Friant Dam. Environmentalists say that a longer look at history suggests the dam would fill up far less frequently.

Environmentalists fear that Sites Reservoir -- located north of the delta -- could be used to steal too much water from the Sacramento River in the spring, harming surrounding habitat. Also, with a recent court decision limiting delta pumping, environmentalists question how much water from Sites could be sent south -- where most of the water demand is.

There are concerns that Los Vaqueros might be used to suck too much fresh water from the delta. And statewide benefits of the dam are questionable because Contra Costa County voters were promised that an expansion would not be used to send water to Southern California.

Q: What are the alternatives?

A: Environmentalists say ground-water storage, conservation and recycling programs are more cost-effective than dams. New conservation efforts could save as much as 3.1 million acre-feet of water a year, triple the amount provided by building new dams, according to an analysis by the state Department of Water Resources.

But department officials say all options should be pursued. They say dams can do things other projects can't -- like capturing large quantities of water in wet years.

Q: Will anything really get done this year?

A: Time is running out to get a bond on the Feb. 5 ballot.

Deals can come together quickly in the Capitol. But water issues have led to some of the Capitol's biggest fights over the years and there is no reason to expect that will change.

Still, if anything is going to get done, now could be the time. There is a new sense of urgency ever since a federal judge in Fresno ordered less delta pumping to protect the delta smelt, an endangered, 3-inch-long fish. State officials say the decision could lead in average years to a 35% cut in water deliveries.

Schwarzenegger and Perata appear ready to strike a deal. But hurdles remain.