Golis: Why the era of big water projects passed into history

Warm Springs Dam can be counted among the last projects of its size in California.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

After the three driest years in the recorded history of California, torrential rains were bound to spur a clamor for new water projects. People want to know: Why is all this water being allowed to escape to the ocean?

“What is California doing about wasted stormwater?” asks the Los Angeles Times.

“In a Drought, California Is Watching Water Wash Out to Sea,” declares a New York Times headline.

Pete Golis
Pete Golis

Demands for new water projects have been loudest in the Central Valley, where hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland have been left fallow because years of drought led to depleted reservoirs, widespread water curtailments and groundwater overdrafts.

Wishing for a new water project and building one is not the same, of course. There are reasons the era of major dam projects has come and gone.

Warm Springs Dam, constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, can be counted among the last projects of its size in California. It was completed in 1983 and only after winning the approval of local voters in 1974 and again in 1979. (Between the two elections, a two-year drought boosted public support for the project.)

Stricter environmental rules are often blamed for the lack of new projects, and there’s no doubt that laws and court decisions that protect wildlife habitat don’t make it easier to dam a river. Those laws often responded to the damage caused by existing water projects (which is why some dams are being removed).

Many of the best reservoir sites are already developed. And not many folks are eager to pay for a mega-project, or for the ongoing costs of pumping water from one region to another. Interest groups prefer projects that oblige some other entity — usually the state or federal government — to pay the bills.

A view of Warm Springs Dam. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat, 2012)
A view of Warm Springs Dam. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat, 2012)

Many proposals arrive freighted with complexity, rival interest groups, competing government agencies and the potential for stalemate. For decades, Californians have been debating how to move water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Gov. Jerry Brown first proposed a peripheral canal in 1980, and the idea didn’t originate with him. Interested parties have been floating similar ideas since the 1940s.

When a water project is built, there are inevitably winners and losers. More than 100 years later, residents of the Owens Valley in eastern California are still fighting for the rights to water now shipped hundreds of miles to Los Angeles.

Water projects create other impacts as well.

In 1969, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was poised to build a dam on the Eel River at Dos Rios in Mendocino County. Water from the Eel was destined for the lawns and bathtubs of Southern California, where local water barons were excited by the prospect.

But the water impounded by the dam would have inundated — that is, destroyed — the town of Covelo and displaced residents of the Round Valley Indian Reservation.

At the eleventh hour, the project was vetoed by a California governor who wasn’t known for his environmental credentials. His name was Ronald Reagan.

In his book, “The River Stops Here,” author Ted Simon recounts a meeting in the governor’s office in which Indian leader Norman Whipple explained his opposition to the dam: “(Whipple) invoked the injustices Indians had suffered in the past. He described how the army had driven his ancestors into the valley at gunpoint a hundred years earlier and was now threatening to drive their descendants out. The valley was theirs by treaty. So many treaties had been broken. Would there be no end to it?”

Simon continues, “There was no question now of the effect on Reagan. He was visibly moved, almost to tears. … All those present at that meeting were in no doubt that if any one moment had to be singled out as crucial to saving the valley, then that was it.”

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon would report: “Later, when he rejected Dos Rios, Reagan would say, in an eloquent pun, ‘We’ve broken too many damn treaties.’ It was his finest environmental moment.”

Water projects usually displace or otherwise disadvantage someone, and those folks are not likely to keep quiet about it. Once upon a time, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made plans to inundate Knights Valley in northern Sonoma County. If the same proposal were to resurface today, it’s not likely the valley’s premium wine grape growers would be thrilled by the idea.

In response to the extreme weather associated with climate changes — drought followed by disastrous floods — smaller initiatives will play a key role.

“In order to be resilient to floods and drought, which are kind of two sides of the same coin of extreme weather, we need to be able to adapt our infrastructure to the new normal,” state Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot told the Los Angeles Times. “And that means significantly expanding water recycling, capturing stormwater, modernizing conveyance and recharging groundwater basins, and so we’re in a race.”

Demonstration projects that use underground storage are gaining momentum. Proposals to expand existing water projects — including raising the heights of dams — will gain new currency. Los Angeles hopes to build hundreds of small projects that will collect rainwater.

As they are submitted, these smaller projects will face familiar questions: What do they cost? Who gets hurt? Who benefits? And who pays?

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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