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California | Central Valley | U.S. | Environment & Forest Defense | Government & Elections

State Board Revokes Auburn Dam’s Water Rights
by Dan Bacher
Tuesday Dec 2nd, 2008 6:05 PM
The California State Water Resources Control Board today voted unanimously, 5-0, to revoke the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s water rights to build the controversial dam on the American River northeast of Sacramento.

Photo of the American River Canyon courtesy of Friends of the River, Sacramento.
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State Board Revokes Auburn Dam’s Water Rights

by Dan Bacher

Anglers, conservationists, hikers, and recreational boaters who enjoy the American River above and below Folsom Dam are celebrating a huge milestone in the decades-long battle to stop the building of Auburn Dam.

The California State Water Resources Control Board on December 2 voted unanimously, 5-0, to revoke the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s water rights to build the controversial dam on the American River 35 miles northeast of Sacramento.

The landmark order cited California’s tough “use it or lose it” water rights policy, in which the Water Board noted that the Bureau failed to construct the project and apply water to beneficial use with due diligence as required by state law.

"This is a death certificate for the Bureau's water rights for Auburn Dam," said William Rukeyser, board spokesman. "The Bureau can apply for water rights in the future, but as with every application, there are no guarantees."

The prospects of Auburn Dam ever being constructed are increasingly dim, since the Bureau now has neither water rights or authorization from Congress to build the project.

“This is a great victory for millions of people who utilize this river every year,” said Ron Stork, senior policy analyst for Friends of the River (FOR). “Hopefully, this action closes a chapter on the 35 year effort to build one of California’s most useless and most expensive dam projects ever conceived. Auburn Dam is without purpose, without funding, and now without water.”

“The board’s actions affirmed that water laws are to be applied equally to everybody,” said Chris Shutes, FERC projects director for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA). “This decision removes a huge amount of paper water from previously existing permits and paves the away for similar actions in the future.”

While this ruling does not completely eliminate the possibility of an Auburn Dam, it is another nail in the coffin of the struggle to stop the dam. “The dam's backers are certainly going to have to do a lot more work to bring the dam back to life,” said Stork.

Besides protecting wild trout populations of the North and Middle Forks of the American Rivers and their tributaries, today’s decision will also help fish populations of lower American River. The water of the lower river is already greatly over appropriated – and the building of the dam would make the situation of imperiled salmon and steelhead populations on the American and other Central Valley rivers even worse.

“I believe this decision by the board will ultimately benefit not only water quality in the American and Sacramento rivers, but also all of the fish that call the river their home,” said Dave Mierkey of Rip Their Lips Off Guide Service, who guides on the American, Sacramento and Klamath rivers. “The better the quality of water and flows in the river, the better the fish will respond. It is just great to see that the board that made this unanimous decision, for once, didn’t back down on protecting the public trust.”

Salmon fishing in ocean waters off California and Oregon and on the lower American River and other Central Valley streams was closed for the first time this year, the result of the collapse of Sacramento River fall chinook salmon populations, due to massive water exports from the California Delta, declining water quality and other factors.

The DFG officially supported the revocation of the permits in a policy statement given to the board in July. “We believe that such action is consistent with the Fish and Game Code and will be in the public’s best interest overall,” according to the Department.

“The Department takes seriously its responsibility to safeguard the natural resources of the North Fork of the American River, Knickerbocker Creek and the lower American in trust for the public,” the DFG said. “The sensitive and listed species, including foothill yellow-legged frog, and hardhead minnow in the North Fork American River and steelhead within the Lower American River, remain at risk.”

The Bureau of Reclamation's representatives didn't comment during Tuesday's board meeting, but they recently submitted written comments on the board's draft order to revoke the water rights for the dam. "Contrary to assertions made at the hearing by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and Friends of the River, Reclamation is not requesting that the Board apply a different set of rules and regulations to the Federal Government," the Bureau claimed.

Since its inception in 1965, the dam has represented a project that was very expensive and destructive to the environment, while at the same time providing little benefit to the region, according to Friends of the River (FOR). FOR, the Save the American River Association (SARA) and other organizations successfully convinced Congress to deny authorization and funding for the Auburn Dam in the 1990s.

With no practical prospect of building the dam any time in the foreseeable future, Stork noted that the Bureau was unable to convince the Water Board that it deserved to retain its water rights. Without the state-granted right to store water behind the Auburn Dam, the Bureau will not be able to build the giant structure that threatened to flood more than 50 miles of the American River, including miles of prime wild trout habitat.

The review of the Bureau’s water rights was prompted in part by a threatened lawsuit in 1999 by then California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Lockyer noted that the Bureau was illegally diverting water from the North Fork American River at the former Auburn Dam construction site, even though the dam had never been built. Lockyer’s threat led to a recently completed project that closed the Auburn Dam diversion tunnel and restored flows in the surface channel of the river.

"The board's decision is a great victory for all who care about Central Valley fisheries,” summed up Bill Jennings, CSPA Executive Director.

I applaud Ron Stork of FOR, Chris Shutes, Mike Jackson and Bill Jennings from the CSPA, Jim Jones, past president of SARA, as well as Defenders of Wildlife and Friends of the North Fork, for their many years of hard work to stop the construction of the dam.

For more information, go to http://fotr.convio.net/site/PageServer?pagename=Homepage or http://www.calsport.org