Ken Garcia: Hot dam — plan revives water wars 

The astounding $143 billion budget proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week has so many projects and risky ventures, it’s no wonder that a lot of people say it is flush with impassioned pipe dreams.

And nowhere may that be more true than in the governor’s plan to build two dams in Northern and Central California, while describing it as an environmentally prudent idea.

I seem to recall that our eco-friendly governor was the same person who gave a green light to a study at the behest of environmentalists on the possibility of tearing down the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley that brings precious water to 2.4 million Bay Area residents each day.

That fanciful notion has been shown to be an illogical and ridiculously expensive conceit — not that that would ever stop its supporters from pursuing it. But it does seem rather remarkable that the governor’s water experts would spend more than a year studying the potential dismantling of one of the West’s greatest engineering feats and then propose building two new dams under the guise of water resource protection.

That’s one of the problems of shuffling around both sides of the same issue — you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Now I realize that Schwarzenegger is positively beaming with big ideas these days — his budget proposal calls for funding so many plans you’d think California has created its own private mint. And one can appreciate his lofty goal of tackling so many systemic problems — from prison reform, to overhauling the health care system, to managing the effects ofclimate change.

But it may be beyond even Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood-honed charms to sell the construction of two dams in California, citing it as a need to offset future decreases in the snowpack. It’s going to be a hard sell to Democrats and the environmental lobby — and previous efforts by the governor to address state water policy have dried up in Sacramento’s balmy political climate.

History is not on the governor’s side. California hasn’t built any major dams in more than three decades, and though the idea may win some favor among affluent and powerful agricultural interests, it’s probably a wash in the Capitol where the state’s northern and southern political lobbies more closely resemble the Hatfields and McCoys when it comes to water policy.

We can all applaud the governor’s big-picture thinking on how to offset the effects of global warming, but I don’t think that’s going to trickle down into a hearty welcome from officials who are more concerned with plans to improve water quality and supply than on adding dams to California’s water system. The issue is so divisive that the betting line here is that Schwarzenegger won’t waste precious political capital on the idea for long — especially while he’s basking in the headlines for leading the national charge on greenhouse gas emissions and for inspiring a true bipartisan effort to deal with California’s myriad infrastructure issues.

Proponents of the new dams, which include a number of Assembly Republicans, say the reservoirs are needed to deal with the state’s pipe-bursting population growth, averaging about 600,000 new residents per year. They also put out that new storage could be used to deal with flood management.

The governor’s plan calls for up to $5 billion to be set aside to build two dams that have been debated for years. One of the proposed dams, called Temperance Flat, is located east of Fresno on the San Joaquin River, not far from an existing reservoir called Friant Dam. The other, taking the name of a tiny Colusa County town called Sites 80 miles north of Sacramento, would flood about 14,000 acres of existing ranch country. The two dams would hold some 3 billion acre-feet of water.

But critics say the proposal doesn’t deal with many of the problems in the delta and its many vulnerable levees, problems that are supposed to be addressed in the $43 billion bond voters passed recently. And environmentalists contend that the new reservoirs are less about future storage to combat global warming and more about subsidized water for San Joaquin Valley farmers.

If it sounds like one of the oldest battles in the West, it is. That's why the chances of passage for the plan are likely slim in a Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Yet any dam construction plan in California should at least silence the drumbeat to take down one of its most vital reservoirs. At some point the debate over the future of Hetch Hetchy may evaporate, but let’s hope its water never will.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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