Dams, dams, and more dams

Updated: Aug 23

A 20th Century Answer to a 21st Century Problem

By Carolyn Lochhead

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.