top of page

Dams, dams, and more dams

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

A 20th Century Answer to a 21st Century Problem

Anita Lodge wades in the cool waters of the San Joaquin river near her family's home at Temperance Flat July 16, 2015 near Auberry, Calif. The water turns back into a river when Millerton Lake is as low as it currently is. The proposed Temperance Flat dam would be built above Millerton Lake along the San Joaquin river and it would hold about 1.2 million acre feet of water. The dam would also flood the land where Anita Lodge's family's home is located. Brought to the area during the gold rush, the family settled in the area in the 1860s. Over the years, their 320 acres has shrunk down to just seven. The land includes the home Lodge's father built in the 1970s. The family cherishes the land and their home, which between Lodge, her sister and her daughter is always occupied. They have been fighting the building of the dam for about twelve years now. (Leah Millis, The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

FRIANT DAM, Fresno County — Driven by drought, California stands ready to build a water system for the 21st century. Ideas are flowing: conservation, recycling, desalination, aquifer recharge, floodplain restoration, storm water capture.

But the biggest, most expensive, most popular item of all is the foundation of the 20th century water system — dams. Even if El Niño rains bring a bounty of water to the state this winter, the momentum for dam building is unlikely to fade.

Farmers stand to benefit. So do many urban users. The losers would be people like Anita Lodge.

Lodge, 58, clings to the last remnant of a Gold Rush homestead deep in the San Joaquin River Gorge 33 miles north of Fresno, where her ancestors mined ore by wheelbarrow and her mother hung laundry on the willows. Now the 7-acre spread is surrounded by a federal preserve alive with bears and bobcats, herons and eagles, and in spring, a profusion of wildflowers.

Behind a bend downstream lies a linchpin of California’s water system: Friant Dam, snaring the river on its path from the Sierra foothills to Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley. Completed in 1942, Friant can hold 520,500 acre-feet of water for farmers and cities in the southern San Joaquin Valley. That’s almost twice what the 2.6 million customers of the Hetch Hetchy system used in a year, even before drought-prompted conservation measures kicked in.

The gorge draws hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers to the national San Joaquin River Trail, which, when complete, will reach 80 miles across the Sierra to Devil’s Postpile National Monument near Mammoth Lakes.

Steve Evans, Wild & Scenic Program consultant for Friends of the River, stands near a bridge built at the San Joaquin River Gorge. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle

What was gained, lost

All of it will be inundated if a giant new dam 7 miles east of Friant, called Temperance Flat, is built. The drought has made that a strong possibility.

“Maybe I’d feel better about it if I thought it was going to take all this away from us and they were going to have all this fabulous water that was going to water all these farms and take care of all these other families,” Lodge said.

But with the prospect that climate change could bring ever-less rain and snow to California, “I’m thinking, this reservoir will never be filled again,” Lodge said. “It’s going to be this dirty bathtub ring where there was once a beautiful canyon. It’s not going to help any farmers. It’s not going to help any farmworkers.”

Dams, 1,400 of them blocking every river in the state, were California’s deal with the devil in the 20th century. They trapped the water that helped small towns spread across arid landscapes and become cities, providing homes and jobs for millions of people who wanted to live here. They made the Central Valley one of the world’s most productive farming zones.

They also proved ruinous to wildlife that depend on free-flowing rivers. Nearly three-quarters of the state’s native fish — from salmon and sturgeon to obscure endemics like the Red Hills roach and the much-maligned delta smelt — are threatened or will soon be listed as such, in no small part because of the loss of habitat caused by dams, said Peter Moyle, a biologist at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Recognizing the damage done, a rising chorus of water managers and politicians from both parties is making a new argument for new dams: They will help repair the environmental devastation caused by the old dams. If the state had more water stored during droughts, they say, more water could be sent downstream to fish and wildlife refuges.

“Old is new again,” said Rep. John Garamendi, a liberal Democrat from Walnut Grove (Sacramento County) who supports both Temperance Flat and Sites Reservoir, which would flood a dry valley north of the delta with water pumped from the Sacramento River in wet times.

The main argument for new dams is that they will store more water for people and make it easier to shift water to where it is most needed. “When you have a lot of water you have to store it, and when you don’t have water you have to take it out of storage,” Garamendi said. “That’s the fundamental underlying principle for California’s water future.”

Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, introduced a $1.3 billion drought bill in July, half of it for dams. House Republicans, led by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, passed a bill that would speed dam approvals. The California Department of Water Resources heralds a “new era of surface water storage,” arguing that new dams “would help the state cope with drought and climate change and benefit both people and the environment.

Above: Nick Zaninovich, operations chief for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, checks out birds during a tour of the proposed Temperance Flat site. Photo Leah Millis, The Chronicle

Different kind of reservoir

Temperance Flat, the $3.1 billion dam-behind-a dam, is one of four long-mothballed reservoir proposals that would together cost more than $9 billion and enlarge the state’s storage capacity by 9 percent. They’ve gotten new life with voter approval last fall of the bond measure Proposition 1, whose biggest chunk of cash, $2.7 billion, goes toward storing more water. The bond could pay up to half the cost of any new project.

The measure would also pay for another method of storage — putting water not above the ground, as in a reservoir, but in the ground. It’s an idea that is gaining traction around the state. The fight for Prop. 1 funding is likely to play out between advocates of these two very different schemes.

About 150 miles south of the Lodge homestead lies a pool of water that is bigger than Temperance Flat ever would be. Stretching 32 square miles, yet all but invisible, this reservoir is the antithesis of a dam.

The Kern Water Bank was created 20 years ago by a consortium of irrigation districts that retired farmland and installed a new kind of water collection system in the flat fields west of Bakersfield.

No rivers were diverted, no gorges were swamped — the water puddles in ponds that fill during wet periods, then percolates into a vast natural aquifer.

The water bank can hold at least 1.5 million acre-feet, on par with Lake Berryessa in Napa County, the state’s seventh-largest reservoir. Its capacity is not limited by physical barriers, only by the amount of water that nature delivers.

Situated on a porous alluvial fan, the bank gets its water from the dams and canals of the state’s surface reservoir system and the Kern River, which intersects it.

Unlike the barren channels typical in the valley, with their near-vertical embankments, the canals used on the bank have gradual slopes and vegetation for wildlife. The ponds are feathered at the edges to follow the topography.

The ponds “really mimic predevelopment conditions,” said Jon Parker, general manager of the water bank. “Before irrigation canals were built, natural flooding would occur in the area and you would have water spread out in the basin, creating wetlands when it was wet. When it was dry, they would dry up. That’s essentially what we’re doing.”

The surface is a bird paradise of intermittent wetlands that draws not just eagles but white pelicans, a bird rivaling condors in wingspan that lost its breeding grounds in the valley to development. Endangered mammals such as the San Joaquin kit fox thrive here.

Parker pointed to the crystalline water pumped from the ground into canals after being “perfectly filtered by mother nature” and said, “That’s a really good place to snorkel there.”

Snorkeling and providing a landing place for birds aren’t the reason for the water bank’s existence, though. Hit by a series of droughts decades ago, farmers developed the bank to guard against being cut off from state and federal surface supplies. The water goes to a chain of large farming operations, including billionaire mega-farmer Stewart Resnick’s 125,000-acre Paramount Farms, which grows almonds and pistachios on the west side of the valley.

Resnick isn’t exactly a friend of environmentalists — the Kern Water Bank has been the subject of serial lawsuits over its tapping of public water sources — but the concept of storing water below ground instead of above it has many green allies.

“Banking water in the ground makes sense,” said Gary Bobker, program director at the Bay Institute, an environmental group.

Steve Yoder jogs up steps near huge pumps at the Kern Water Bank pump station in Bakersfield.

Underground advantages

Underground storage is much cheaper than building dams. It recharges groundwater, which drought-panicked farmers and cities in the valley are draining at a furious clip. Evaporation, a scourge of surface reservoirs, is minimal. It helps, rather than destroys, the environment. And California has much more storage capacity below the ground than above it.

Santa Clara County and many urban water districts in Southern California have copied the concept, recycling wastewater to store underground until it’s needed for industrial or landscape uses.

Dam supporters acknowledge the virtues of aquifer storage, but say there has to be a place to park water before it can go underground. Percolation takes time, and spring floodwaters don’t wait. To capture surplus water when it arrives, they say, the state needs dams.

“Some dams need to be built,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents urban and farming water districts. “If you really want to get water underground so it’s there during the dry times, you’re going to have to marry it to a surface storage strategy.”

Nick Zaninovich, chief of operations for South Central California Office shows a "plumb bob," which monitors movement of the dam in the bowels of Friant Dam. (Leah Millis, The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

The view from the dam

Deep inside the aging buttress of Friant Dam, operations chief Nick Zaninovich of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation bounds up the metal stairs of the 319-foot edifice. He thinks of the dam as “a living organism” that shifts and changes with time, and marvels at the cleverness of the engineers who designed it in the 1930s, at the start of the great “hydraulic age” when California’s water system was built.

Zaninovich has a bird’s-eye view of the the battles below the dam. California’s water system and its many trade-offs are “so complex you can’t even begin to describe it,” he said. “Everything with water is contentious. Where somebody wants something, there’s 10 other people that want it a different way, and it’s usually 10 different ways.”

Friant dried up the San Joaquin River and killed its salmon runs. A restoration program authorized by Congress is trying to get the river flowing again, but it’s been too dry for the past two years to do that. Senior water rights holders who are first in line for Friant water have been demanding their share.

Delivering water to all who need it is “a very delicate balance,” Zaninovich said, “and the less and less water we have, the more delicate that balance becomes.”

He said people often confuse the capacity of a reservoir with its ability to deliver water. “Building another dam, unfortunately, doesn’t increase the capacity of the watershed,” Zaninovich said. “There’s no guarantee that we’re not just going to get less water.”

He pointed to the Colorado River basin, now in its second decade of drought. The giant reservoirs at Lakes Powell and Mead are dropping precipitously. But even when they were new, they took decades to fill.

“A lot of people don’t put that together,” Zaninovich said. “They think that if we build a reservoir, a year after it’s constructed it’s going to be full. It could be, if we get a big enough rain year. But generally speaking, I certainly would not expect that. I think we would be in for a very slow fill period.”

But if and when the reservoir does fill, it could help store more water for droughts.

A collection of fishing hooks that Anita Lodge’s family has found over the years hangs on display near her property.

Tripling water capacity

Right now, Millerton Lake behind the Friant Dam holds about a third of what it can store in wet years. But those wet years, when they come, provide three times more water than will fit into the lake. That’s where Temperance Flat comes in.

From a motorboat at the outer reaches of Millerton Lake, Michelle Denning, the federal Bureau of Reclamation planning officer in charge of the Temperance Flat proposal, points to a pinch in the gorge where the new structure would be built, tripling the capacity of the current reservoir to 1.26 million acre-feet.

Millerton is “a small reservoir in a large watershed,” Denning said. Its original design was scaled back, she said, because of the demands of World War II.

Unable to hold all the water that comes to it in most years, Millerton Lake “empties and fills,” Denning said, delivering water as soon as it comes to make room for the next flows from the river.

“With Temperance Flat,” she said, “you would be able hold it and then deliver it at times when it’s hotter, the drier part of the year, or in drought years.”

As the climate warms, the Sierra snowpack, which acts as the state’s biggest surface reservoir, is predicted to shrink. More precipitation may fall as rain, “so that means more runoff and that makes reservoirs actually more important,” Denning said.

Still, she said, “there are huge demands on our budget, and a lot of our facilities are 60 to 100 years old and they need major rehabilitation investments.”

The San Joaquin River Gorge, a popular recreation area in Fresno County, would be flooded if Temperance Flat is built.

Public benefits, dollars

The Bureau of Reclamation calculates that half the water from the new dam would go toward helping fish, a “public benefit” that would allow taxpayers to pick up half the cost with Prop. 1 bond money.

No new dam in California would pencil out financially without this benefit. Farmers cannot afford the multibillion-dollar price tags, and the only way taxpayers are legally allowed to help is if the dams provide a public benefit, and the biggest one by far is ecosystem restoration.

Fish biologists say the environmental benefits are overstated. Rene Henery, California science director for Trout Unlimited, a group working on salmon restoration on the San Joaquin, said “there’s essentially no basis” for claims that Temperance Flat would help fish.

Jon Rosenfield, a Bay Institute biologist, pointed to operations on Shasta Dam that were intended to help fish survive the drought but wound up killing them two years in a row. “It’s a total fiasco,” he said.

Using new dams to help fish “to me is partly just a way to try to get the taxpayers to pay for everything,” said Moyle, the UC Davis biologist.

Whether Prop. 1 funds any dams will be up to the California Water Commission, an obscure nine-member agency appointed by the governor that now has the eyes of every water interest in California bearing down on it.

The commission expects to start making final decisions in early 2017, said Commissioner David Orth, and is eyeing a combination of groundwater storage, better use of natural floodplains and dams.

Sometimes water comes “in such large gulps that it’s hard to capture them all and convey them to the prime recharge sites without some type of a large upstream detention facility,” Orth said.

Temperance Flat is “well positioned,” he said, but “ultimately these projects are going to require water users to be willing to pay for them. And if they become too expensive, then they’re going to fall flat on their face.”

A boat passes through the spot where Temperance Flat Dam would be built on Millerton Lake in Fresno County, near Friant. (Leah Millis, The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Seeking new storage

Last year’s landmark state groundwater law, which for the first time requires California water districts to limit aquifer pumping, is also accelerating the search for new groundwater storage projects such as the Kern Water Bank. On the eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley in particular, Orth said, there are “fairly shallow groundwater aquifers with good, rechargeable sandy soils” that could be candidates.

The federal government, a key player in any funding strategy, is keeping an open mind.

“We need to broaden our perspective on storage,” said Michael Connor, deputy U.S. interior secretary. “We recognize it’s incredibly important to the overall water resources strategy in California.”

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead


bottom of page