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The Era of Big Dams is Still Over (Even With the Water Bond)

Doug Obegi

Posted September 3, 2014

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The potential for new water storage in California is in the news because of Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond on California’s November ballot, which includes $2.7 billion for new groundwater and surface storage  (and an additional $800M for groundwater remediation projects).  For instance, Sunday’s San Jose Mercury News article outlined four major reasons why the era of big dams ended in California: the best sites are already taken, environmental laws prevent the worst projects, easy federal money dried up, and cities and farms found new ways to create water.  Likewise, columnist Robert Green in the LA Times asks all the right questions about new storage, from taxpayer subsidies to cost effectiveness, and highlights the fact that building a new dam doesn’t mean it will fill with water. 

Today, NRDC is releasing a short fact sheet on water storage in California, which contrasts the economic effectiveness of investments in regional and local water supplies like water recycling and efficiency with the high cost and economic infeasibility of building big new dams.  Although NRDC continues to have significant environmental concerns with some proposals to build big new dams, more often than not it is simple economics that explains why big new dams aren’t being built in California.

To begin with, building big new dams is very expensive, and the water from such projects is generally far more expensive than water created by groundwater storage, water use efficiency, recycled water (indirect potable reuse), or stormwater capture.  For instance, the federal feasibility study for Temperance Flat estimates that this project would cost nearly $2.5 billion and would yield only 61,000 to 76,000 acre feet of water per year.  The feasibility study for raising Shasta Dam estimates that project would cost $1 billion and only generate 139,000 acre feet of water per year.   Taken together, these two dam projects would cost approximately $3.5 billion and would yield an average of 209,000 acre feet of water per year.  In contrast, the state has estimated that $1.4 billion in water bond funding for integrated regional water management (IRWM) projects like water efficiency, water recycling, and groundwater cleanup over the past decade leveraged $3.7 billion in local funding and has helped save or create nearly 2 million acre feet per year.  Big new dams simply can’t compete economically with these regional and local water supply projects.


Not surprisingly, these new dam projects produce very expensive water.  We estimate that without taxpayer subsidies, the water coming out of Temperance Flat would cost more than $1,500 per acre foot, which is far more than the cost of water generated from water recycling, stormwater capture, groundwater storage, or water conservation projects.  Even with massive taxpayer subsidies, the Bureau of Reclamation estimates that water would cost more than $200 per acre foot for agricultural contractors (far more than these districts pay today, especially since the project would eliminate much of the cheap $10 per acre foot water that is provided in wet years).  Water generated from big new storage projects costs substantially more than water from water use efficiency, stormwater capture, groundwater cleanup, and water recycling projects.  Similarly, research by Stanford University’s Water in the West program, “shows that groundwater recharge is a cheaper alternative to surface storage.”

figure2.JPGIn addition to the economics, California already has over 1,400 dams and reservoirs, and over the past three decades we have added 6 million acre feet of new water storage facilities, including both surface storage (such as Diamond Valley and Los Vaqueros reservoirs) and groundwater storage (including the Kern Water Bank and Semitropic Water Bank).  Because we already have so much existing storage, building new dams does little to create substantial new water supplies. Dr. John Holdren, the White House science advisor, succinctly summed up the problem earlier this year, saying that, “The problem in California is not that we don’t have enough reservoirs, it is that we do not have enough water in them.”

And of course, there are also significant environmental problems with some of the proposed major new storage projects.  For instance, as we emphasized in our September 2013 comment letter, raising Shasta Dam would flood sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu people, flood part of the Wild & Scenic McCloud River (which has some of the best fly fishing in the state), and provide almost no benefits for salmon or other fisheries.  Likewise, while our April 2014 comment letter on the draft feasibility study for the proposed Temperance Flat dam focused on the economic infeasibility of this project, we also emphasized that the study’s absurd conclusion that the dam created an ecosystem “benefit” of reduced salmon populations in the San Joaquin River.  NRDC strongly opposes these two surface storage projects. 

Yet in contrast to these two harmful projects, conservation groups like NRDC did not oppose recent offstream surface storage projects like the Diamond Valley or Los Vaqueros reservoirs, and NRDC has identified potential benefits of additional storage projects south of the Delta like further expansion of Los Vaqueros reservoir, expansion of San Luis Reservoir, and groundwater cleanup and storage projects in the Central Valley and in Southern California.  For instance, in the San Fernando Valley water pollution has contaminated the groundwater basin, reducing the amount of water that Los Angeles can withdraw and complicating projects to recharge the basin with stormwater or recycled water.  And if the contamination is not addressed, it will continue to spread, further reducing water supplies.  Yet by investing in a major groundwater remediation project, LA can sustainably increase the amount of water that is withdrawn from the groundwater basin and enable greater recharge of the basin, helping LA to cut imported water use in half by 2025.

This November, California voters will decide whether to approve Proposition 1.  Importantly, the water bond does not earmark funding for Temperance Flat or any other surface storage project, and both surface storage and groundwater storage and cleanup projects would be eligible for funding.  In addition, the bond would only provide funding for public benefits like improved water quality or higher salmon returns, and would never fund more than 50% of the total cost of any storage project (so private beneficiaries would have to pay at least 50% of the total cost).  If voters approve Proposition 1 this November, we believe it is likely to fund groundwater storage and cleanup projects and some smaller, regional surface storage projects, and we will work over the coming years to ensure that the bond does not provide substantial funding for environmentally harmful and economically infeasible projects like raising Shasta Dam or building Temperance Flat dam. 

Even with the water bond, the era of big new dams in California is still over.  More than anything, that’s simple economics. 

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Barbara Barrigan-ParrillaSep 9 2014 12:55 PM

While one may believe the era of big dams is over, this does not mean that those who want big dams will not keep pushing their boondoggle projects along through legislative and agency processes that will eat up critical public dollars that should be invested in water solutions that make sense. Ten days after passing the water bond, California State Senators called for a resolution at 10 p.m. on Friday night at the close of session asking the Federal government to fund Sites, Shasta, and Temperance Flat. Why support funding that will feed the beast? Are we going to waste hundreds of millions of dollars planning for projects that won't pencil that we have to fight out so that consultants can remain fully employed?

Moreover, there is over $2.5 billion in unissued bonds for clean drinking water projects on the table, along with $450 million in Federal grants that have not been spent. This bond measure to add a few PR crumbs redirects the voters’ already authorized funds, as if reauthorizing the same money will do the trick.

The water bond should have had only had new money to augment the clean drinking water money not authorized, but pending, money for near term drought solutions, and a greater percentage of money for recycling, groundwater, fixing urban water systems.

Spreck RosekransSep 9 2014 03:51 PM


You are right that basic economics is for the most part all that is needed though you did conflate the Shasta raise with Temperance Flat - Shasta alone would look more attractive if environmental considerations are not included.

There is a reason that groundwater recharge in Kern County has been so popular with cities and farmers alike - it is cheap.

If the bond passes, it will be interesting to see what proposals are presented to the California Water Commission. NRDC may need to spend some quality time in that forum.


Michael JacksonSep 9 2014 04:33 PM


I agree with your well stated, well researched position against big dumb dams as presented in this blog entry. But I have a question: Why did NRDC and other environmental groups help bring back the era of dam building by supporting Prop 1 and its potential $2.7 billion for pork barrel dam projects?

This position is almost as incomprehensible as the NRDC role in the Delta Accords in the 1990s. The Delta Accords were directly responsible for the ecological collapse of the Bay/Delta in the following decade.

Perhaps we should learn from history and either fight damaging proposals, or at a minimum, first, do no harm. Vote no on Prop. 1, no matter what Ann says.

Bill JenningsSep 10 2014 04:56 AM

Frankly Doug, I’m still astonished that NRDC has enthusiastically embraced a water bond that undermines core environmental values and principles that have long buttressed protection for fisheries and the environment. A few worthy projects cannot justify the basket of environmentally damaging pork this bond represents.

Allocating $2.7 billion for storage eliminates a major reason big dams haven’t been built in the Central Valley since New Melones in 1978. Your confidence that you can out-maneuver the dam lobby before the Water Commission reeks of hubris.

Even more troubling, the water bond undermines public trust doctrine by providing hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase water the public already owns, at inflated prices, to protect the public’s rivers and environment. If fish and rivers have to buy water to survive, they’ll perish.

The water bond further undermines the principle of beneficiary pays by subsidizing projects that benefit special interests and undermines the principle that projects should be responsible for mitigating their adverse impacts.

And finally, we can only guess at the extent of the Governor’s sidebar promises made to secure support for the bond. As the Merced Sun-Star reported, the Governor promised northern San Joaquin Valley legislators that he would use his influence to keep the State Water Board from implementing the flow increases on the San Joaquin River the Board has identified as necessary to protect public trust resources. Their vote was conditioned on that promise. We have also learned that supporters of specific dam projects have been assured that their projects would receive prioritized funding.

Again, I simply can’t fathom what you folks were thinking.

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