July 22, 2008

Promised San Joaquin County Water Source Springs a Leak

By Alex Breitler, The Record, Stockton, Calif.

Jul. 22--SACRAMENTO -- An ever-thirstier San Joaquin County has been told for more than half a century to take a drink from the American River, where the federal government planned a new dam to capture and store snowmelt.

But the Auburn Dam, the long-awaited source of surface water that our area needed, never happened.

Now the state, in a final blow, may kill the federal government's rights to take any more water from the river. That water was to be shared with three counties, including San Joaquin.

Local officials testified Monday that they still need the water and asked that the water rights be preserved a few more years.

"This has long been promised to the county by the state and federal government, and it's a commitment that should be honored," Mel Lytle, water resources coordinator for the county, told the State Water Resources Control Board.

Auburn Dam, started in 1972, was delayed three years later after an earthquake. Then the cost soared above what Congress was willing to pay.

Much has changed since the dam was first proposed. The Delta has deteriorated. Environmentalists say the state has promised more water than can be delivered.

Stockton environmentalist Bill Jennings told the board he was 26 years old, weighed 150 pounds and had "flaming red hair" when the Auburn Dam water rights were issued. Today his beard is a snowy white.

"This morning, my shower diverted more water" than has been put to use in all those years, he said.

"The Auburn Dam project is dead," Jennings said. "The corpse needs to be buried."

Even without a dam, San Joaquin County could contract with the federal government to take American River water from another location -- perhaps Freeport on the Sacramento River, where local officials are already pursuing water through a separate process.

"The county is not proposing to build Auburn Dam," attorney DeeAnne Gillick said at Monday's hearing.

Rather, local officials asked for about three years to negotiate a water contract with the Bureau of Reclamation and find a way to get the water on their own.

The need, they say, is desperate. Despite the county's being naturally rich in rivers and surface water, about 60 percent of its water comes from underground.

As a result, groundwater has dropped as low as 70 feet below sea level in some areas, while saltwater slowly invades the area from the west at a rate of 150 to 250 feet annually.

Federal officials said Monday that the decades-long delay in building Auburn Dam was out of their control. Construction stopped in 1975 after an earthquake raised concerns about the structure's seismic safety. A new design would be needed, the agency decided.

Lawmakers have never increased the cost limit for the project, although as many as 13 legislative bills have attempted to address the issue.

Ultimately, the bureau has very little control over funding, said Ray Sahlberg, regional water rights officer for the Bureau of Reclamation. It can't "hold a bake sale" and can't win the lottery to build the dam and preserve its water rights; it has to wait for Congress to allocate money.

"We believe this project is still viable today," Sahlberg said.

Over the years, San Joaquin County officials looked for other sources. They spent $65million bringing water to Stockton from New Melones Lake, a project with inconsistent results at best.

"The county was intentionally or unintentionally misled," said James C. Hanson, an engineer representing San Joaquin County.

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or [email protected]


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